New research changes fire code to benefit barbecue cylinder sales sites

June 25, 2014 By and    

Industry-initiated adjustments to fire code regulations are expected to further stoke the cylinder exchange marketplace.

An ambitious scientific study determined that the steel and aluminum cabinets currently in use are sturdy enough to provide adequate protection from cars and SUVs crashing into them at typical parking lot speeds.

The National Propane Gas Association’s (NPGA) Cylinder Exchange Council and the Propane Education & Research Council (PERC) collaborated on an $111,500 project to dampen the costs and construction requirements faced by propane marketers wishing to install barbecue cylinder exchanges in front of stores and at other locations.

International Fire Code (IFC) standards mandated that concrete-filled steel posts sunk 3 feet into the ground, called vehicle impact bollards, be positioned in parking lots fronting retail outlets hosting the exchange cages

In addition to carrying a price tag of $150 to $300 per post, which the propane marketer usually covers, some merchants objected to having those bollards planted on the sidewalk in front of their stores.

Local fire officials frequently insisted on the posts per IFC regulations, which are predominantly enforced in 41 states. The National Fire Protection Association’s rules (NFPA 58 for the propane industry) are not as onerous.

“NFPA 58 is pretty vague, simply requiring protection in accordance with good engineering practice when there is a risk of vehicle impact,” according to Jeffrey M. Shapiro, president of International Code Consultants, which conducted much of the PERC/NPGA study.

“There is an annex that describes the use of bollards, guardrails or raised sidewalks as possible considerations, but no contemplation of the value of a cylinder exchange cabinet as an independent method of impact protection,” he says. “The IFC has traditionally been interpreted to require the use of bollards because of the way it’s written.”Code change
Thus, the Cylinder Exchange Council set out to remedy the problems posed by the IFC standards, and the members achieved their goal.

The 2015 edition of the IFC will change to recognize the cylinder exchange cabinet as providing suitable protection against vehicle impact in lieu of other methods.

“Developing the comprehensive foundation necessary to substantiate a change to the IFC’s longstanding vehicle impact protection requirements took three years of research and advocacy work,” Shapiro reports. “In the end, the NPGA Cylinder Exchange Council, with sponsorship provided by PERC, was successful in eliminating bollard requirements for the protection of cylinder storage and exchange cabinets after demonstrating cabinets and cylinders are able to withstand vehicle impacts that equal or exceed the capabilities of code-compliant bollards.

“As a result of this project, the cost and complexity of installing cylinder storage and exchange cabinets will be reduced, and the appearance and accessibility of installations will be improved,” he says. “Through this program, NPGA gained the respect of code officials responsible for developing the IFC by performing much-needed research and providing a sound technical basis to support changing the code.”

PERC and the Cylinder Exchange Council are preparing a white paper on the topic for distribution to fire chiefs across the country.

Absorbing the impact
“As a group we had discussions of impact protection requirements throughout the states and how much they varied,” says Ed Ferguson, the Cylinder Exchange Council’s past chairman. “The concern was how can one type of protection be allowed in one area, and in another area the code was much more stringent. It created a lot of confusion.”

Ferguson, an AmeriGas executive involved in the company’s cylinder exchange operations, observes that “it didn’t make sense from a safety standpoint; why such differences in the requirements?”

“They’ve been dealing with this for a long time,” says Bruce Swiecicki, NPGA’s senior technical adviser for regulatory and technical services. Local fire chiefs “were requiring them to install these concrete posts, and that is not an inexpensive proposition.”

The Cylinder Exchange Council contributed $5,000 toward the study, which began in 2011. PERC covered more than $100,000 in expenses.

In a three-phase process, Shapiro analyzed the existing information and documentation that was available along with devising and overseeing an array of elaborate and aggressive testing protocols conducted at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio.

“We knew we had to have a credible testing laboratory,” Ferguson says. “We were able to prove that the cabinets and the DOT container itself was suitable protection against vehicle impact.”

Numerous cylinder exchange configurations were subjected to various levels of distress brought about by crashing into them with a vehicle-mimicking device known as a bogie. Using differing amounts of weight and speed, the bogie demonstrated under closely watched and scientifically recorded conditions what would happen when assorted vehicle models and designs come into unintended contact with the cages.

“We wanted to see how the installations would perform in real life,” Swiecicki says. “The testing of the cylinder/cabinet system revealed that none of the pressurized cylinders leaked, leading to the conclusion that sufficient protection was provided by the enclosed metal cabinet and the cylinders themselves.”

Cabinets were crumpled, abused and knocked out of commission, yet the cylinders held their load.

“The case absorbed much of the impact,” Ferguson says. “While some of the cylinders were dented, they didn’t release any product.”

A selection of bollard construction techniques was also employed, a strategy that dramatically underscored a critical flaw in the IFC standards: The requirements did not take into account differing soils, ground conditions and pavements – ultimately proving that some of the bollard installations were inadequate to offer protection beyond that of the cylinder cages themselves.

“The testing revealed that the performance of that system was highly dependent on the soil compaction, fill and surface materials used,” Swiecicki says. “When installed in loose soil, the system was unable to protect an installation from a vehicle traveling at about 10 miles per hour.”

Recalling a test bollard installed in a common loose-soil condition, Ferguson reports that “the bogie essentially mowed it down.”

What they’re saying
Greg Kerr, PERC’s director of research and development, says the results of the study clearly show that bollards are not needed.

“No pun intended, but it’s certainly less of a barrier into the market if you don’t have to put the bollards in,” he says.

Ferguson has been in the propane industry for 34 years, and says he has never seen this type of testing. He notes that he is impressed with the thoroughness of the research and verified hands-on demonstrations to prove the propane industry’s position on the bollard issue.

“It lets our customers and the public know how safe cylinder exchanges are when done correctly,” he says. “It goes a long ways to assure folks that the cylinder exchange business is safe.”

“That is good news,” Swiecicki says, “not only for cylinder exchange businesses but also every propane business that has facilities in jurisdictions enforcing the international codes.”

“It will make it more affordable for marketers to install the cage set,” says David Day, CEO at American Standard Manufacturing, which produces cylinder exchange components. He adds that “in all likelihood” it will increase the segment’s overall sales prospects.

“It certainly helps,” says Jeff Lenard, spokesman for the National Association of Convenience Stores. “Anytime that it is easier for retailers to sell to customers, they’re more likely to embrace new products. When you take away obstacles to selling something, it makes it easier to sell it.

1 Comment on "New research changes fire code to benefit barbecue cylinder sales sites"

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  1. Lynn Evans says:

    Noticing the comment that the 2015 IFC would accept a steel cage is incorrect. It actually defers to the 2014 edition of NFPA 58.

    NFPA then states under* Vehicular barrier protection (VBP) shall be provided where vehicle traffic is expected at the location.

    It goes on to further explain in the appendix “A. Only minimal VBP, such as either parking bumpers [minimum of 6 in. (150 mm) above grade] or sidewalks [minimum of 6 in. (150 mm) above grade], might be needed for cylinder exchange cabinets. The storage cabinets associated with cylinder exchange might provide limited protection against physical damage to the stored cylinders.

    Hope this helps.