When it comes to fire prevention practices in working commercial kitchens, the line between safety and potential disaster can be summed up in a matter of degrees.
As the Confederation of Fire Protection Associations in Europe notes in its main European guideline document for restaurants, there are only small differences between the safe cooking temperatures of oils and fats (about 205°C), the temperature at which flammable vapours are given off (about 230°C) and that at which spontaneous ignition occurs (between 310°C and 360°C).
On top of this, you’re talking about an environment where gas is widely used, fats can easily overspill and deep fat frying is common. Oh, and grease deposits can quite easily spark an emergency if they are not removed.
While the latest government stats reveal that fire incidents in the catering industry are experiencing a downward trend, there were still 2,300 blazes in restaurants, cafes, wine bars, pubs and takeways during 2012-13.
What’s most surprising in light of this is that there are no hard and fast rules governing fire protection policies in catering environments — something that remains a source of irritation for many specialists in the fire suppression space.
“The UK law, at present, does not have a mandatory requirement for kitchen fire suppression systems to be installed,” says Steve Evans, MD at Amerex Fire International. “However, many insurance companies insist upon a kitchen fire suppression system as they assess it as a major fire risk.”
Given the average cost of a commercial kitchen build, it would take a very foolish operator to overlook the need for at least a basic fire protection system these days. And manufacturers are keen to stress that there is far more chance of getting the specification right if the decision is taken early on in the design stage.
“Many of the issues surrounding the specifying and installation of these systems can be handled in a far smoother manner if this is implemented,” agrees Amerex’s Evans. “We have been working with canopy manufacturers for a number years to offer factory-fitted solutions to enable smoother installs.”
Ironically, reports of a fire at a high-profile restaurant or eatery will often do more to sell the case for adequate fire suppression than any manufacturer could do on its own, but it isn’t as simple as just buying a system off the shelf — especially given wider kitchen design trends.
First and foremost, the kit has got to do its core job although that doesn’t necessarily mean operators want it to be seen. Compactness of systems and greater flexibility in design are key trends, while installers are being asked to blend the kit into the decor.
“With ‘show’ kitchens becoming prevalent, this has never been more important,” says Ian Bartle, managing director of Nobel Fire Systems. “Restaurant goers and operators alike don’t want to see pipe drops or other elements of the fire system on show. Kitchens can look very impressive nowadays and the fire system shouldn’t detract from that.”
Fire protection suppression equipment has certainly had to evolve with the times and deliver the sophistication taken for granted by kitchen operators today.
“A trend that we’re seeing emerge is the need for the fire suppression system to be flexible to handle a variety of cooking appliances,” remarks Chris Prideaux, UK business development manager at Ansul Restaurant Fire Suppression Systems, a global premium brand of Tyco Fire Protection Products. “Appliance line-up changes and changes to the kitchen layout happen frequently and require a protection solution to be adaptable to the needs of the operator.”
The emergence of differing technologies is also adding spice to industry proceedings, particularly when it comes to the debate around wet chemical technologies versus watermist systems.
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Bartle at Nobel is quite clear where he stands on the subject: “Watermist is a technology that Nobel uses in other applications, so we know its strengths and weaknesses and it just doesn’t fit in the kitchen environment, a view shared by the majority of insurers. What happens for instance if you lose power to site — no battery backup — what happens if you lose water supply, are glass bulbs a sensible component to have in a kitchen, and so on.”
He also questions the view that watermist systems are cleaner than wet chemical. “This is just not true in the slightest. Wet chem systems use a finite amount of liquid to very quickly extinguish a fire by chemical interaction with secondary misting to cool the oils and fats — it simply doesn’t need high volumes to carry out its function.”
Fireworks Fire Protection and Suppression Systems is only too happy to offer the other side of the coin. Its Hydramist 15 AMPU pumped fire suppression system provides effective extinguishing of kitchen fires. The system also purports to be the first in the world to achieve Loss Prevention Certification Board (LPCB) approval.
“It uses only fresh tap water to generate mist that quickly smothers the fire and reduces the temperature of surrounding surfaces, preventing reignition,” says sales and marketing manager Steve Titterington. “A further advantage of this system is that it helps stop smoke spreading throughout the premises enabling a fast return to business. After activation, minimal clean-up is necessary as only clean water is used, allowing the kitchen to be back in operation extremely quickly — in most cases in minutes.”
Wet chemical systems have traditionally been used in the smaller commercial kitchen environment, but Fireworks is looking to challenge the perception that this is the only credible option available.
“The old adge is that oil and water don’t mix and therefore specifying a water-based system to cover an oil-based fryer doesn’t sit well with the majority of kitchen owners, installers and designers,” says Titterington.
“The technology has moved on over the last 20 years and the benefits of high pressure watermist are now commonplace in all of the larger commercial food manufacturing and processing industries. The effectiveness that the large commercial companies have seen by introducing this technology is now available for use in smaller restaurants and facilities.”
With the improving economic picture likely to spark renewed investment in the industry that manifests itself as new restaurant openings, fire suppression equipment vendors should not find themselves short of opportunities. But that doesn’t mean they don’t face obstacles.
The use of non-approved fire suppression systems entering the UK market, combined with the lack of regulation of manufacturers, are ongoing challenges cited by more than one leading brand.
Prideaux at Ansul insists that maintaining system integrity by using fully trained, certified and audited installers is absolutely crucial. “We’ve seen instances in the market where end-users will try to save money by selecting non-approved service companies. This typically results in shortcuts being taken, renders the manufacturer’s warranty invalid and may ultimately threaten the safety of the restaurant property.”
Evans at Amerex concurs: “At the base level, fire systems protect life, therefore we believe it is important to specify a system that is engineered and backed by a professional fire company, and that the equipment is tested and approved by an independent third party testing laboratory.”
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Although the insurance market has grasped the nettle by highlighting the need for fire suppression systems to operators, the lack of legislation surrounding the market remains a sore point for many.
Most are only too aware that without legislation, fire suppression is still often seen as an unnecessary cost and if an ordinary fire extinguisher will meet regulations then that will suffice.
“It’s hard to argue against this logic,” acknowledges Nobel’s Bartle reluctantly. “We all know the financial pressures operators face, so if it meets regulations they aren’t to blame. But automatic fire systems must become an essential part of the modern kitchen and only legislation is going to ensure that is the case.”
Fire Suppression: System specification
Deciding what sort of fire protection system is most suitable for a particular kitchen environment isn’t always a straightforward process for foodservice designers and catering equipment distributors.
Steve Titterington at Fireworks Fire Protection and Suppression Systems picks out three factors he feels are most important when evaluating the strengths of a prospective solution.
“Items to be considered should be the cost of the installation, cost of ongoing maintenance and the cost of activation-downtime including the consequential losses associated with a fire,” he says.
Chris Prideaux at Ansul, insists the aesthetics and physical size of a fire suppression system are becoming paramount, together with discharge nozzle heights and the need for hidden pipework.
“In terms of suitability, we would always recommend a UL300 standard pre-engineered system as they do not need calculations for flow rate, pressure drop and nozzle pressure. The systems are tested for fire extinguishment with minimum and maximum piping limitations and minimum and maximum temperature limitations.”
Ian Bartle at Nobel Fire Systems stresses the importance of third party approvals, but taking that as a given he also cites reliability, longevity and low lifetime costs as the main considerations.
He adds that the technology used in Nobel’s K-Series systems ticks all those boxes as the system continuously monitors itself and flags up any faults through audible and visual alerts should they arise. What’s more, these can then be diagnosed and fixed remotely.
“You want the system integrity to be without question, seven days a week, 365 days a year,” he says. “If you can’t check this other than through a physical service then that has to be a concern.”