Plumis, the James Dyson Award-winning inventors of the Automist active fire protection concept and manufacturers of a small range of innovative products, has a long association with Exova, the global testing, inspection and certification experts which has recently become part of Element Materials Technology.
Exova Warringtonfire helped Plumis to negotiate a complex labyrinth of research, development, assessments and testing needed to take its headline product, the Red Dot Design Award-winning Smartscan, to market.
Classed as an active fire suppression system, the Smartscan concept uses water mist technology to either extinguish fires or suppress them long enough to allow people to escape safely and firefighters to attend. It comprises a small high-pressure pump, connecting pipes, and a swivelling misting nozzle fitted with an automatic infrared sensor which locks onto the fire when activated by a heat detector. Unlike water sprinklers, the nozzle is wall-mounted, allowing it to shoot water mist sideways and thus avoid the super-hot evaporative layers above a fire.
Its chief advantages over sprinklers or conventional water mist systems are that it uses less water, causes less water damage, requires less supporting infrastructure and is thus more easily retrofitted – a major attraction for owners, occupants, architects, fire engineers and insurers. It is perfect for retrofitting into open-plan homes and indeed comes with an LABC Registered Detail for that use case.
It was launched successfully in 2016 and is selling well. With a newly secured InnovateUK grant of £450,000 and a fresh round of venture capital behind them, Plumis is currently making inroads into the lucrative US market, which is many hundreds of times bigger than that of the UK.
Every new house in many US jurisdictions (such as California and Maryland) must be equipped with a full fire suppression system. Although this usually means sprinklers, water mist systems are also eligible provided they are third-party certified to meet the required performance thresholds.
Historical research by the National Fire Protection Association found that one in nine times, sprinkler systems failed to work in response to a fire. When they investigated the reasons, it was because owners had deliberately shut their system off, either through forgetfulness after some maintenance task or because they distrusted it, fearing unwarranted water damage. As William Makant, Plumis’s hands-on Managing Director says, “Home owners don’t ever want the sprinkler to go off because of the damage it does à la Bruce Willis Die Hard movies.”
Because Plumis’s technology dramatically reduces water damage and enables easy on-site and remote status monitoring, the company sees an extraordinary opportunity to advance beyond traditional water sprinkler systems. William Makant points of the influence of insurers on the sector. “Insurers are increasingly investing in and promoting what they call insuretech. They favour products like ours to incentivize safe behaviours so that they can tailor premiums more accurately to the risk.”
However, the Smartscan product is not currently optimized for the US context. Each nozzle needs its own water pump, which means that equipping the average new American suburban home, which might need 20 nozzles to comply, would be prohibitively expensive. Similarly, the Smartscan technology does not yet have UL listing, i.e. third-party certification based on bespoke test standards formulated by Underwriters Laboratories, the de facto gatekeepers to the American and many other world markets.
In response, Plumis is developing a new product – the Smartscan Hydra™ – and once again Exova Warringtonfire is helping, providing Plumis with the testing and demonstration facilities at its High Wycombe site.
Very simply, Hydra is an evolution of Smartscan. The pump, nozzle design and mechanical engineering are the same. However, in a Smartscan Hydra system, one central mains-fed water pump can connect to many different heads, instantly making it cost-competitive in the US.
The magic is in how the system chooses which one of the many nozzles to use in the event of fire. It works like this. When a smoke detector activates, all the Smartscan Hydra nozzle heads instantly swing into action, their infrared heat sensors scanning the rooms for tell-tale growing heat signatures. Together they send data to a hive mind – a central control unit. Once it confirms a fire, an algorithm determines which nozzle is best placed to tackle it. The hive mind closes down redundant nozzles and kicks the pump into action, channelling mains water to the one remaining functional nozzle, which fires water mist precisely at the fire.
In the complex compliance environment of fire safety, Plumis is used to having to argue the case for its innovations. Although the technology meets regulated performance thresholds, the concept falls outside the prescriptive scope of the relevant British and other internationally recognized standards. So the team has had to leverage forward thinking assessment protocols to meet and, indeed, exceed, the relevant tests and performance thresholds.
The critical path to acceptance is challenging but Plumis is steadfast in its determination to find a way through. After all, the business undertook a heroic, comprehensive programme of testing to bring Smartscan to market. Any company that has the resilience to survive an optimistic initial programme of eight test sessions eventually exceeding 80 has the right stuff. Fortunately, the Exova Warringtonfire team was with them every step of the way, establishing a dedicated water mist testing facility in an existing concrete block-lined spray-room – now a permanent facility open to all manufacturers – and becoming very experienced at testing to BS 8458 in the process.
Plumis needs to collect raw data to validate their controlling algorithm and check that the system chooses the right nozzle. The team also needs somewhere to demonstrate Smartscan Hydra in action to win the approval of industry gatekeepers. William Makant explains, “The idea is to alter the position of heads around the room and to see how they cope with different room layouts and fire locations. Whatever situation you throw at it, we need reassurance that a head will find the fire and suppress or extinguish it.”
Once again Exova is providing the facilities. A test house built from shipping containers until recently used to train fire-fighters is no longer needed. By happy coincidence this structure’s open-plan layout and unenclosed internal staircase perfectly matches Plumis’s ideal test requirements.
William Makant can barely suppress his delight. “I hunted for a test house that mimicked an open-plan layout, so when Exova offered us this it was perfect. Not only is it a more realistic layout, there’s not a queue of other manufacturers waiting to use it.” Plumis has temporarily taken up residence, using the adjacent meeting rooms to accommodate different stakeholder groups to introduce and promote Smartscan Hydra.
The autumn 2017 programme includes sessions for Plumis-accredited installers and, separately, LABC officers, fire authorities, fire engineers. “We will invite them to try to break the system to test its robustness,” says William Makant.
The final and most critical event will be a presentation to visiting UL representatives. With UL-listing the ultimate prize and talks already underway, having the ability to demonstrate Smartscan Hydra in a realistic test setting is an important persuasive gesture to set the full UL certification process off on the right foot.
Active fire suppression systems that use water mist are currently a ‘relatively new phenomenon’ for specifiers, but UL-listing, will remove any suspicion of Plumis’s new technology. With measured belief in its concept, enormous persistence, and, critically, the wisdom, knowledge and help of independent third-party testing with Exova Warringtonfire, the company has amassed an undeniable independent weight of evidence that its technology works. It proves that great ideas will win through.
Although the timing of a launch is not in its control, Plumis hopes to launch Smartscan Hydra with an LABC Registered Detail as soon as possible in the UK as a complete alternative to sprinkler systems for residential buildings up to five storeys. Their crosshairs are trained more intently on UL-listing, when again the company will be pushing for resolution as soon as possible. None of this would be possible without the expert help of trusted partner Exova Warringtonfire, which is now one of the most experienced water mist testers in the UK.