Electrical fires in advanced building construction. A new threat for fire safety?

Today, there is a growing trend is to green, energy neutral buildings fitted with advanced electrical technology. Modern buildings consist of significant amounts of combustible materials for thermal insulation such as flame retarded foams based on polystyrene and polyurethane used for internal, roofing and façade insulation. The increased use of traditional natural materials such as cork, cellulosic fibers, and the development of biopolymers may affect the fire safety of such new buildings.

Another challenge is the soaring development of electrical and electronic (E&E) systems in houses of the future for assisting the inhabitants with intelligent and active services. In addition to the increasing use of advanced IT and audio/video equipment, sophisticated appliances, and new technologies such as photovoltaics, these innovative systems supporting our day to day life in our homes may lead to higher fire hazards. These new systems will involve many devices, enclosures, cables and unit controls, hidden behind walls and suspended ceilings.

The renaissance of traditional green materials and the increased use of biopolymers in conjunction with the higher integration of innovative E&E systems at home will lead to higher risks and thus to more potential domestic fires. Therefore, fire hazards related to these E&E systems have to be identified and fire scenarios based on excessive heating, arcing, short circuits, and other electrical faults have to be defined.

In order to solve these emerging fire safety problems, strategies have to be developed in various fields: 

  • A better understanding of the electric fire causes by identifying the type of E&E system involved and the reasons for failure as a basis for countermeasures
  • Measures to immediately stop power following malfunction in power generating systems such as photovoltaics
  • The use of adequate flame retardant additives systems to prevent ignition or to limit flame spread, and the formation of smoke and toxic fire effluents
  • The development of new fire safety concepts by using adequate fire resistant barriers and fire enclosures for E&E systems in order to protect combustible materials and products from potential E&E ignition sources