Fire Rated Safes Explained

Updated 11-2-2016

When choosing the right safe for your home or commercial space, fire rated safes may be among those considered. The safe you choose should function according to your need. Fire rated safes provide fire protection classified by the amount of time your valuables will remain safe at certain temperatures.

30 years ago, we had about about 17 minutes to escape a house fire, today it’s down to about 3 to 4 minutes. Today, modern homes and offices are built with less expensive materials that are much more flammable and burn faster. If there’s a fire, you won’t have time to collect valuable items you may want to save AND the people you love. Modern home and office fires give you time to do one thing; GET OUT.

For this reason, many people choose to protect valuable or irreplaceable items by purchasing a fire rated safe. Not all safes are created equal and not all offer fire protection, so it’s important to know what you’re protecting to find the type of safe that best suits your needs.

Fire Rated Safes: Fireboards vs Composites vs Ceramics

  • Fireboards: Most fire rated safes you will find are wrapped in a 1/4 – 5/8 inch thick layer of fireboard similar to dry wall. This fireboard contains moisture components that, when heated, releases moisture to protect the safes contents. More fireboard means longer protection from fire.
  • Composites: Other fire rated safes use a material called composite sandwiched between two layers of steel. Think of this composite as a kind of lightweight concrete the insulates and shields your contents from extreme temperatures and fire. Different manufacturers can sometimes have different names for proprietary materials they consider composite.
  • Ceramics: K-wool is another material used in fire rated safes. It’s a lightweight, flexible and durable material made of long ceramic fibers. K-wool has a continuous use limit of 2300°F and a melting point of 3200°F. K-wool is very expensive so it’s as common for use in fire rated safes as fireboard and composite.

How are Fire Rated Safes Tested

We’ve all seen a label with the letters UL next to a rating for major electrical and household appliances. The UL stands for Underwriters Laboratories, a global company that does third-party testing, certification, and auditing for commercial products. Intertek ETL is another testing and certification company providing similar services. Chances are you will find UL and ETL markings on many of your household devices and appliances.

Fire rated safes tested in laboratories are placed in a huge furnace with thermal couplings connected to a computer to record data. The furnace is heated to 1200°F in about 10 minutes and maintained at this minimum temperature throughout the duration of the test. As the temperature of the furnace is raised, the computer reads internal temperature changes and when the internal temperature hits 350°F the test is complete.

Normal house fires range between 800°F – 1200°F which is why the minimum furnace temperature during testing is set at 1200°F. Paper begins to discolor just above 350°F, scorches at 410°F, and burns at 451°F. Guns can withstand more heat but items like plastics and other items need to be considered carefully. The average house fire is extinguished in 20 minutes. Fire storms burning through neighborhoods average 2000°F and higher and can level an entire neighborhood in minutes.

It’s important to consider the melting and burning temperatures of the items you plan to store in the safe.
Not all safe manufacturer test are created equal nor are they all conducted in an independent laboratory. This is why product research on your part is important. Some manufacturer safes are “factory certified”, meaning all testing is done in-house without independent witnesses. You’ll want to know if your fire rated safe was tested inside a furnace or is the fire rating derived from the rating of the fireboard or composite alone. If the safe was tested inside a furnace, you’ll want to know how long it took for the furnace to reach 1200°F or the testing temperature. A fire rated safe with a one hour rating where the furnace took 40 minutes to heat up and was tested for only 20 minutes should not be given a one hour fire rating. You should also consider that heat rises so the placement of the heat couplings that read the internal temperatures are important as well.

The most important things to consider when buying a Fire Rated Safe:

  • What material is being used as the fire protection? Wall board or composite material?
  • How many layers or how thick is the fire wall?
  • Are all the susceptible spots protected with this fire protection? Door jambs, internal hinges? Walls, ceiling and floors?
  • How was this safe tested and rated?
  • What is the warranty, if there is one, on the safe in case of fire?

Your Home as Fuel

Studies show that modern houses and materials are more flammable than those of the past. Modern homes tend to provide us with just minutes to escape. Wood houses burn hotter than concrete homes and brick houses tend to burn hotter as brick absorbs more heat than concrete. The materials of the items we choose for furniture and other decorations can also affect the burning temperature and escape time considerably.

If you’re storing cash in a fire rated safe, you should definitely consider emergency response times and invest accordingly. If the items you store in a safe are at all worth the investment to protect them from fire, by all means spend it. If the stored items are fragile or even much more valuable than the safe itself, you should consider purchasing a “fire box” as well. These items will have an additional layer of fire protection, protecting them for an extended period of time at higher temperatures.

Be Sure Your Safe is Safe From Fire
When securing valuables, theft is often considered first, but fire is a constant threat as well. A fire rated safe could be the difference between the loss of important documents or valuables that could have been saved, and the sigh of relief you feel when returning to your fire-damaged residence to see your safe still standing.

Buying a fire rated safe or any other type of safe is a great investment. Stay informed and ask questions to be sure you have the right safe for your needs. You should also check with your insurance agent to see if any discounts are in order for having a fire rated safe in your home.

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