NOTE: If you are builder or specifier please go here for specific building codes requirements.
You're building a new home or maybe you're adding an addition or a garage, remodeling a kitchen or a family room. What precautions do you need to take for fire safety?
What if you live in an adjoined condo or an apartment building? Do you need to be concerned if your untrained neighbor imagines himself a Top Chef?
Just what exactly do we need to know when it comes to fire safety in our homes? In this article we review frequently asked questions related to fire safety in residential construction. Understanding what you need to know is an important part of any project.
Understanding Fire-Rating Basics
Q: How are walls fire rated? What is fire resistance-rated construction?
A: A certification process determines the fire-rating of a wall system. It is the wall system, not specific products, that are tested and certified. For example, a fire-rated drywall board is approved for use as part of a certified wall system. A basic wall system could include a drywall board, insulation, light gauge steel stud followed by another drywall board.
Q: What is drywall Type X and where is it used? What is Type C?
A: Both drywall Type X and Type C are approved for use in a 60-minute rated design. The wall systems they are approved for are different, however. Type C fire-rated drywall has more glass fiber reinforcement and other ingredients in the gypsum core that makes its fire-resistive properties superior to Type X.
Q: What is the difference between one-hour fire-rated drywall and three-hour fire-rated drywall and where would each one be used?
A: A 60 minute fire rating is a measure of the amount of time the wall system can withstand fire resistance in a fire-rating performance test. More than one hour is achieved by adding additional layers of boards to extend protection or by adding other elements to the system to make it more robust.
Fire Safety at Home
Q: Where are fire-rated products used in the home?
A: Fire-rated products are not typically used in single-family residential construction except for garages. These products are primarily used in commercial construction (high rises, office buildings, industrial, institutional) and any space requiring an area separation wall such as a hotel or multi-family home.
Q: Why are these products generally not needed in a single family dwelling? What is their role in fire safety?
A: The purpose of fire-rated products is to delay the spread of a fire and extend the time a person has to leave the building. In a single family home, getting out is easier. There are fewer floors and multiple exits so the code focuses more on prevention. You will see requirements around electrical wiring, for example, to prevent fire risks caused by faulty wiring.
Q: If I am replacing or repairing drywall in the garage, do I need to use fire-rated materials?
A: First, fire-rated systems are only required if the garage shares a wall or a ceiling with the home. If you are doing repairs in the garage you should replace with like materials, but remember it is the wall system that is fire rated not the product itself. So if it's more than a patch job or you're repairing in an area that overlaps with the main living space, it's probably best to contact a professional.
Q: Do fire codes differ between single family homes, condominiums and multi-unit apartment buildings?
A: Yes, any space requiring an area separation wall (a wall separating adjacent living units) like apartments, condos and townhouses, uses a fire-rated system. They are also required in any egress area in the apartment building.
Q: What fire-rated materials are used in multi-unit dwellings?
A: Drywall Type X and Type C are the industry standards for this type of construction and are used on all exterior-facing and joining walls. Interior walls are traditionally non-fire-rated ½" drywall.
Q: In light of some recent high-profile apartment fires, is there anything renters or owners in a multi-unit building should be aware of when it comes to fire safety?
A: Fire safety is part of the building code. It spells out the necessary requirements for this type of construction. In addition to construction requirements the building code also specifies things such as automatic sprinkler systems, emergency and exit lighting, emergency power supplies and fire alarm systems. In general renters/owners will likely have little say in what construction materials are used per unit but you can request information on system maintenance and notify the facilities department if a fire alarm has been disabled.
Your One Very Important Take Away
Q: So to conclude, do homeowners need to be concerned about the fire rating in their home?
A: No, in residential construction fire-rated assemblies are only specified for garages and most homeowners with attached garages are probably not aware of the fire-rating for that wall. Same can probably be said for occupants of multi-family homes with separation walls, and (unless you are replacing the drywall in an attached garage) there really is no need to be aware. The required fire-rating is specified in the building code. Your builder, your architect, your contractor, they need to be aware.
Q: Are there other ways to improve fire safety at home?
A: Definitely. First, if you are doing home repairs have all work checked by a building inspector. It may seem like a tedious step at times but it's important to making sure your family is safe. Second, this one is simple but critical. Make sure you have all your necessary smoke detectors and the batteries in them are working properly.