• United States



Toolbox: Putting Out Fires

Jan 01, 20054 mins
Physical Security

It wasn’t your typical vendor meeting, reports a CSO colleague of mine. Instead of trying to get his arms around another new firewall or identity management application, he watched as Joe Ziemba, product manager of engineered systems at Tyco Fire and Security, poured watery-looking liquid over his laptop keyboard. Two-thousand dollars down the drain? Nope. The liquid evaporated instantly with no damage to the computer. Then, he held a container of some of the liquid next to a lit candle. The vapor from the liquid snuffed out the flame. Pretty cool stuff.

The cool stuff in question is a fire suppression system called Sapphire, from Tyco’s Ansul division. Sapphire is a “clean agent,” which means it can put out fires without harming electronic equipment or other items that might be damaged from the activation of a water sprinkler system. Think about a computer room; if a sprinkler system goes off and floods the servers and cables, that’s one heck of a loss. Clean agents help minimize that risk.Halon Gets the BootClean agents have been around for decades. The most widely used one over the years has been Halon 1301. However, halons were found to harm the ozone layer and, under the Montreal Protocol of 1987 (which the United States signed on to), developed countries were required to phase out production of those gaseous agents by 1994. (The United States currently has no phase-out requirement for existing halon systems.)

Newer, more environmentally friendly agents appeared on the scene in the early 1990s, including FM-200 (from Great Lakes Chemical Corp.) and Inergen (also an Ansul product), both of which became popular replacements for halon systems.New Suppressant on the BlockSapphire is the latest iteration in clean agent technology. It uses Novec 1230, a fluid manufactured by 3M, which will not damage the ozone layer and has an atmospheric lifetime of just five daysthat is, it will remain in the atmosphere for five days, then disappear. (By contrast, halon has a lifetime of 65 years.)

Sapphire works like other clean agent systems, which are also known as total flooding systems. They are designed to detect fires before they ignite, using sensors that sense changes in temperature or smoke. If a system observes a problem, agents are released in gaseous form through fixed nozzles located in the ceiling, walls or under the floor.

Novec 1230 (a fluoroketone, for any chemistry majors out there) is an odorless, colorless fluid that is stored in tanks, usually located outside the protected room. It vaporizes upon release and is heavy enough to stay in the room and prevent anything from reigniting. (Other clean agents, such as Inergen and FM-200, are stored as gas, not liquidwhich requires more tanks.) “It dries 25 times more quickly than water,” says Ziemba. “We can dip a painting or book in the stuff, pull it out, and it’s dry with no damage.” Sapphire also leaves no residue, making cleanup a relative breeze. It can work alongside a water sprinkler system or by itself.

According to Ziemba, a Sapphire system costs $30 to $40 per square foot. That’s more expensive than a sprinkler system but less than Inergen. Ziemba touts the fact that Sapphire is a sustainable clean agent: “It will never be legislated out of use,” he says, which Tyco uses as a selling point when talking with potential customers.Keeping Things Up and RunningOne reason clean agents have made headway in protecting areas such as control rooms, tape storage rooms and data processing centers is that those areas are critical to business continuity. If a fire strikes one of those areas or if a sprinkler system goes off, it could be catastrophic to a company, particularly if there’s not a redundant facility. “The objective is to have no downtime or as little downtime as possible,” says Mark Conroy, senior fire protection engineer at the National Fire Protection Association.

Ziemba says Tyco has about 40 Sapphire customers in the United States and more than 200 overseas, including museums, hospitals, libraries and manufacturing plants.