The Ultimate Fire Test: Part One

 By David Hohenstern | Fri, March 03, 2017 | Meet the Blogger | More Posts by David Hohenstern

 By David Hohenstern | Fri, March 03, 2017 | Meet the Blogger | More Posts by David Hohenstern



Preface: “It’s been a long time (long time). We shouldn’t of left you (left you) without a dope beat to step to (step to, step to…).” I don’t know why because I don’t own a copy and I haven’t heard it in years, but I can’t help but think of Timbaland’s intro on Aaliyah’s “Try Again” in accounting for why I inadvertently left everyone hanging since my last (and first) blog post. It’s not my fault! Things have not proceeded according to plan. You may recall (maybe) I teased a story about NFPA 285. Well, that story has not happened yet, so I cannot tell it. But, I can give an account about another fire test; a larger, scarier, more intense cousin of NFPA 285 called CAN/ULC S-134. Were Star Trek references even remotely relevant to compare the two, if NFPA 285 is a Klingon, then S-134 is the Borg. My first big commission in the galaxy of building products testing was to Captain Picard us (Nichiha) through the CAN/ULC S-134 Nebula…

The Ultimate Fire Test: Part One

It was incredibly quiet. I heard no traffic sounds, no distant drone of a highway, no planes, nothing in the way of human engineering to pollute the stillness; there was only the light chirping of insects and the gentle brushing of a soft breeze. For one accustomed to the ever-present manmade noise of urban and suburban America, this silence was loudly noticeable and welcome, given the stress of my circumstances.
It was late summer, everything still green since fall had not yet begun its southward offensive. So despite being sufficiently north enough to be no longer in the U.S., the weather was pleasant. Ideal even. And the outdoors proved an alluring place to take breaks from the seemingly insurmountable task at hand.

We were two-and-a-half days or so into our little construction project. Day three started the earliest. Up shortly and reluctantly a bit after five, we set out by six, Chuck, Chris, and I. We were scrambling to get finished, because we had to, for Thursday was the day of the big test. Another team of gentlemen were planning on burning down my team’s creation, but I was reasonably confident they would fail.

“I better head back inside. Got tidying up to do and the guys may need my help,” I thought to myself. At least I was done with the cutting. Cutting lumber and plywood. Cutting panels. Ripping panels. There had been so very much of that but now I was mainly cleaning up the mess I made and fetching items for the team. I had been appointed “cut man” because of my novice experience in construction. Though technically expert, I am academically so. A technical academic, or is it academically technical? One of those.

My election as the cut man elicited an emotional response. Power tools, particularly saws of all varieties, were, to me, agents of finger amputation or other forms of dismemberment, and I wanted no part in them. I am prone to imaginative visualizations of what can go wrong in a given situation (involuntarily jumping off a ski lift (prevented only by lowering the restraint bar), stumbling down the stairs and breaking my neck, etc). There were only three of us, and since Chuck and Chris had the carpentry skills, they had to build our wall and it was only logical for me to supply them with materials and to make sure said items were ready.

So, they worked up on the lift and I, on the floor (I might’ve been tempted to leap off for no reason anyway), had ever so carefully with the deliberate pace of a sloth, for the first time in my life, operated a circular saw. My cuts, though made with too much care, still lacked, you know, straightness. Chuck, who has built houses, took notice of my handiwork. “You call that square?” I could only grin and shrug, thinking of the scene in Star Trek First Contact when Alfre Woodard’s character, reassured by and entrusting Captain Picard, hands over his phaser after briefly holding him at gunpoint. “If you had fired this, I would have been vaporized,” he said. To which she replied, “it’s my first ray gun.” So it was with me and saws.

Such were my thoughts during a quick, late afternoon respite outside the National Fire Laboratory of Canada, a sizable metal-panel-clad, industrial-looking facility, alone in the countryside, surrounded by southern Ontario wood and field. The lab was strikingly out of place given its surroundings, a curious sight when first seen on approach along Ramsay (Bolton!?) Concession 8, a strange name for a road. Apparently this name was new, a recent change that certainly had not made it into Apple or Google Maps, nor Garmin devices, as we found out the hard way. Of course we had gotten lost in the vast metropolis of Mississippi Mills, Ontario., a village one could completely clear with a thrown object.

Vexingly, there were precise turn-by-turn directions written out on the lab’s website. I had eschewed these for my usual technological approach to navigating new places, taking us miles, uhh, kilometers, off course. This was my first mistake of the trip. That I was not at the helm of our outsized rental Dodge Ram multiplied my sense of folly in blindly trusting the navigational computers in uncharted space. There would be other mishaps (you’ll see) but this first one cost us valuable time in our mission. We only had three days, and we needed every available minute.

Our late arrival on day one at the lab got us off a bit on the wrong foot. We thought nothing of it at the time. Our plan for the first morning was to inventory the materials and supplies I had arranged in advance to arrive ahead of us. The first item of business, however, was making introductions with the fire laboratory staff. In months prior, I had spoken numerous times with Eric, our technical contact at the lab. Before committing to the substantial investment of dollars, time, and energy required for the endeavor of a CAN/ULC S-134 fire test, we did our homework.

With the aid of an independent engineering expert in fire testing and in coordination with the National Research Council Canada, including Eric at the lab, we decided to do something nobody had ever done: Not only would we test our product on the S-134 test apparatus, we would first add a wood-framed stud wall over it, including fire resistance rated plywood sheathing. Thus we would have to install our product after first building a ten meter wood stud wall, anchoring it to the testing tower. Everyone else prior only did the former. In American, ten meters is a little less than 33 feet. The tower width was about 21.5 feet, with a window 4.5 feet above the base. The window dimensions were roughly 4.5 feet tall by 8.33 feet wide. Overall surface area of the tower, minus the window opening, calculates out at about 672 square feet.

In planning for this much vertical real estate, I had carefully estimated how much material would be needed based on the tower dimensions, so I was perfectly clear about said dimensions, at least on paper. Despite this, immediately upon walking into the cavernous metal building during our first visit, and actually seeing the tower, I thought, “Ohhhh. [CENSORED]! The Wall in the North!” (You know, the one behind Castle Black.) It was indeed towering and menacing and run also by a team of men with accents and beards, so let’s dub the lab staff the Night’s Watch, though I doubt any were banished criminals.

(Returning to my primary reference metaphor…) Captain Picard must have felt similarly aghast in seeing his first Borg Cube on the Enterprise bridge view screen as I felt in seeing the S-134 tower with my own eyes. I knew we had some long hours ahead of us. It was a Monday and the plan was to have all our work done by early Wednesday afternoon. Eric and the lab team would then take over to install sensors and complete all their prep work ahead of running the test on Thursday morning. Putting aside our doubts and anxiety, there was nothing to do but get started and conquer the challenge at hand by breaking it up into smaller, more achievable tasks. First, we checked the materials I had shipped ahead of us. All the Nichiha panels and installation hardware was right, as was the lumber, sheathing, fiberglass insulation, and Tyvek wrap. Second, however, we had to leave.

To be continued…

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