In early October 2011, as news helicopters patrolled overhead, fire and explosions destroyed a chemical blending plant1 in Waxahachie, Texas. During the disaster, a $1.2 million ladder truck from the nearby town of Ennis was completely engulfed in flaming liquid pouring from hundreds of ruptured intermediate bulk containers (IBCs) stacked in and near the plant.
Like a scene ripped from a plant manager’s nightmare, firefighters narrowly escaped their burning truck and were forced to run from the flaming wave, as local and national TV viewers looked on. Fortunately, no injuries were reported; however, the plant and the fire truck were completely destroyed, and environmental clean-up of spilled chemicals cost millions of dollars.
Introduced in the mid 1990s, the fire risks posed by IBCs became evident early on. One of the most popular configurations features a cube-shaped metal cage with a blow-moulded plastic bottle inside on a wooden or steel pallet. That type of construction fails quickly when exposed to fire.
IBCs are widely used for the shipping and storage of almost any liquid, including fuels, process chemicals, hydraulic fluids, solvents, paints, coatings, adhesives, syrups, vegetable oils, waxes and polishes. Ignitable liquids stored in what are essentially plastic containers creates a serious challenge for risk managers.
‘When I started in field engineering many years ago, ignitable liquids stored in 55-gallon steel drums and some metal tote tanks were the main risks,’ notes John LeBlanc, vice president and senior engineering technical specialist in FM Global’s Chief Engineer’s Group. ‘Suddenly, we jumped from 55 gallons in a steel drum to 275 gallons or more in a plastic container. Even a relatively small heat source can rupture one of these composite IBCs, resulting in a large pool fire that can overwhelm sprinkler systems.’
In December 2020, a critical new tool was added to the suite of FM Approved solutions intended to help mitigate the unique risks posed by the millions of IBCs in use worldwide. The Ecobulk SX-D composite IBC from Schütz Packaging Systems of Germany earned the FM Approved certification based on the requirements of Approval Standard 6020, Composite Intermediate Bulk Containers.
The FM Approved composite IBC from Schütz features double-wall construction with an inner plastic bottle surrounded by a sealed metal shell that is capable of containing the contents should the inner layer be breached. The new IBC is the same size and capacity of conventional composite IBCs but offers protection against potentially catastrophic pool fires.
The Schütz IBC is the first to earn the FM Approved mark and can be used to store liquids with flashpoints of ≥100°F/37.8°C. The metal clad IBC features an integral steel pallet.
‘FM Global and FM Approvals have been working to develop a full understanding of the fire hazards presented by IBCs for the past 15 years,’ explains LeBlanc. According to a recent review, more than 1,600 recommendations related to IBCs have been made by FM Global worldwide, representing more than $97 billion in exposures. The FM Approved IBC joins two other solutions – Safespill flooring systems (Figure 6) and Viking/Minimax IBC containment units (Figure 7) – that have earned the FM diamond over the past few years and can help mitigate the risk posed by IBCs.
The Safespill flooring system from Houston, Texas-based Safespill can automatically capture and remove any liquid spilled on its surface, including chemicals and ignitable liquids. The system, which is derived from a drainage system used for helicopter landing pads in offshore oil platforms, earned the FM Approved mark in 2017 based on the requirements of Approval Standard 6090, Ignitable Liquid Drainage Floor Assemblies. The firm earned a second FM Approved mark in 2020 for an expanded version of its floor system intended for large applications such as aircraft hangars and distribution centres.
The Model BWCon 1,400 IBC containment unit from Minimax/Viking earned the FM Approved mark in 2019 by satisfying the requirements of Approval Standard 6086, Storage Containers for IBCs. The system is a stainless-steel storage box designed to hold and protect a single IBC when located in manufacturing, process, small storage, and other critical areas.
The system can capture the contents of an IBC and limit the size of a potential pool fire, providing protection in areas where a fixed fire-protection system is not in place or is not adequate to protect against an ignitable liquid fire. The unit has additional capacity to capture water or foam discharged by a fire-protection system.
Teamwork pays off
‘The Approval Standards developed for all three of these IBC-related products resulted from initial research conducted by FM Global at the Research Campus,’ notes Rich Ferron, FM Approvals chief operating officer. ‘All of these were great examples of cooperation between industry, FM Approvals and FM Global.’
The newly FM Approved Schütz IBCs were tested extensively in the Large Burn Laboratory at the FM Global Research Campus in West Glocester, Rhode Island, USA. The IBCs were tested using high flashpoint liquids – represented by mineral oil – and low flashpoint liquids – diesel fuel.
While Approval Standard 6020 calls for IBCs to be tested with liquids of closed cup flashpoints greater than 200°F/93°C, represented by mineral oil, Schütz requested that their unit also be tested with diesel fuel. ‘They felt that there was a greater market for IBCs for use with low flashpoint liquids,’ Ferron explains.
As one of the largest makers of IBCs in the world, Schütz has long provided leadership and innovation in helping customers achieve risk reduction. FM Approvals’ Frankfurt, Germany office is located just 60 miles from the Schütz headquarters in Selters. Schütz stayed in close contact with FM Approvals for about six years while it developed its fire resistant IBC system.
Lax regulations increase risk
According to a fact sheet from The Fire Protection Research Foundation, the US Department of Transportation (DOT) and the United Nations regulations permit the shipping of combustible liquids and some flammable liquids in many types of IBCs. However, these regulations do not require IBCs to be fire tested and the DOT has no jurisdiction over commodities in storage. Yet, many producers and customers alike believe that a DOT-approved shipping container is also approved for storage in a warehouse.
This is not the case, notes LeBlanc, who serves on NFPA 30, Flammable and Combustible Liquids Code and as the Chair for the Technical Committee on Storage and Warehousing of Containers and Portable Tanks. ‘The lax DOT regulations surrounding the transportation of ignitable liquids in IBCs and other containers has created a false sense of security. To counter this, we needed an IBC that could survive a fire, was still lightweight and was still relatively inexpensive. The FM Approved Schütz IBC meets these requirements.’
FM Approvals’ Rich Ferron notes: ‘It has taken quite a while, but we now have FM Approved products that FM Global can recommend to its clients and that anyone in the world can purchase to address the very real fire risks associated with IBC use in industry.’
For more information, go to www.fmapprovals.com