Novec, FM-200 gain acceptance as ‘green’ firefighting alternatives


In the move away from Halon as an onboard fire suppressant, Novec 1230 and FM-200 have emerged as the “green” products of choice. Non-conductive, non-corrosive, fast-acting and residue-free, they don’t harm the ozone layer and don’t pose the threat to mariners that carbon dioxide systems do.

Novec, manufactured by 3M, and FM-200, made by DuPont, are both “clean agents” designed to discharge and extinguish a fire in 10 seconds or less. Both are stored as a liquid in cylinders, pressurized with nitrogen and delivered with a pipe network, using nozzles to change the agent to vapor. Both take up considerably less space than CO2 systems and can be safely used in occupied spaces, including engine and pump rooms.

Courtesy Greg Schuler

Two FM-200 cylinders installed inside the fish processor Island Enterprise. The DuPont product is one of the environmentally friendly firefighting agents that are growing in popularity.

Novec is the benchmark when it comes to environmentally compatible agents, said Gregory Schuler, president of Alexander Gow Fire Equipment, a Seattle-based company that sells, designs, installs and inspects marine fire suppression systems.

“Where Halon is an ozone depleter and some of the other alternatives aren’t ozone depleters but have a greenhouse effect, basically Novec is as low as you can go,” he said. “It has an ozone depletion potential of zero with a five-day atmospheric life. FM-200 also has zero ozone depletion potential, but it lasts for years in the atmosphere.”

Novec and FM-200 are equally effective when it comes to extinguishing fires, Schuler said, and both have safety benefits when compared with CO2. Both agents are acceptable for the total flooding of occupied spaces when used as specified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“(CO2) has been out there forever, but it is inherently dangerous,” he said. “Should anybody for whatever reason happen to be caught in a discharge in the engine room and not get out, CO2 will kill them — period. With FM-200 and Novec, if they were in the same exact engine room and (the system) discharged, it’s not going to hurt them because it’s designed to be used in low-enough concentrations. I’m not recommending that you stick around, but it’s not going to hurt you.”

Another benefit of Novec and FM-200 is that neither will damage onboard electronics if discharged. Schuler demonstrated that by dropping an iPhone into a jar of Novec at the Pacific Marine Expo in 2010. Novec is a liquid at room temperature, while FM-200 is deployed as a liquefied compressed gas.

“I don’t know how many people came by and asked, ‘Where did you get the waterproof iPhone?’ Then they asked about the Novec,” said Schuler, who posted a video of the demonstration on YouTube. “You take the iPhone out and you can see the Novec pouring out of it, but (the phone) works just fine.”

Since Novec is fluid at room temperature and is stored at low pressure, recharging the system after a discharge can be accomplished without moving the cylinders off the vessel. Novec looks like water and can be handled in the same way, Schuler said.

“Basically it’s delivered in a tote,” he said. “It literally pours similar to water, as opposed to FM-200, which has a higher pressure. You actually have to have a pump to (transfer) FM-200 and you have to do it under pressure. The two are completely different in how they’re recharged.”

Schuler said Novec is slightly more expensive than FM-200 because more of the agent is required to get the concentration needed to put out flames. Both are more expensive than CO2, contributing to the continuing popularity of that fire suppressant despite the risks associated with it.

Michael Donovan, director of marine business development for The Hiller Companies, a distributor, designer and installer of fire suppression systems based in Mobile, Ala., said Novec and FM-200 represent a small portion of the company’s sales when it comes to engine-room fire protection.

“Both of those agents are probably twice as expensive as CO2 on an installed basis,” he said. “CO2 is a very effective fire protection agent, but it’s dangerous because it will kill you if you breathe it. So you have to have pretty elaborate controls in place to prevent discharging the system when there are people in the space. With the clean agents, as is true with Halon, they are not dangerous to people. That’s the premium you pay for life safety — about twice the price.”

Schuler estimated that about 60 percent of his company’s business involves CO2 systems, followed by FM-200 at 30 percent and Novec at 10 percent. He said the price of Novec and FM-200 was dropping slightly, which could close the sales gap with CO2 in the coming year.

The “greenest” fire suppression system available, water mist, continues to trail in the marketplace for total flood application because of cost. Schuler said an installed water-mist system like Marioff’s HI-FOG can be four or five times more expensive than a system employing another agent. In the long run, however, he said water mist has its advantages.

“You don’t have to do hydro testing (on the cylinders) and maybe you don’t have to do certain things you would do with a CO2 system, for instance, so over the life span of a vessel — 40, 50 or 60 years — maybe water mist is less expensive,” he said. “And the X factor is that if you have a discharge, with water mist you basically reset the control equipment and it’s done. With CO2, FM-200 and Novec, they have to be recharged.”

Donovan said companies that sell and install fire suppression equipment are constantly educating consumers about the advantages and disadvantages of each system. The process began in the 1950s and continues in the post-Halon age.

“Some folks who learn about and understand the life-safety benefits pick Novec, FM-200 or water mist,” he said. “Others, despite the information, still make the choice for the more economical CO2. … It’s an evolution. CO2 was popular 50 years ago, then Halon came along in the ’60s and ’70s. It was half the weight, took up half the space and had the equivalent cost of CO2, and it had life safety. It was magic, just like asbestos and lead paint were great substances, too. But they all came with an environmental cost.”

Schuler said one of the most important points to remember with any system is that after it is designed, approved, installed and commissioned, it needs to be maintained.

“You would not believe how many systems we see that are poorly inspected,” he said. “We find systems that may not discharge because of improper arming of the system — pipes that get damaged, sirens that do not work and so on. The marine environment is hard on equipment. The message is that maintenance by a qualified, certified company is a must.”

By Professional Mariner Staff