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A fire extinguisher, flame extinguisher, or simply an extinguisher, is an active fire protection device used to extinguish or control small fires, often in emergency situations. It is not intended for use on an out-of-control fire, such as one which has reached the ceiling, endangers the user (i.e., no escape route, smoke, explosion hazard, etc.), or otherwise requires the expertise of a fire department. Typically, a fire extinguisher consists of a hand-held cylindrical pressure vessel containing an agent which can be discharged to extinguish a fire.
In the United States, fire extinguishers, in all buildings other than houses, are generally required to be serviced and inspected by a Fire Protection service company at least annually. Some jurisdictions require more frequent service for fire extinguishers. The servicer places a tag on the extinguisher to indicate the type of service performed (annual inspection, recharge, new fire extinguisher) and when.
There are two main types of fire extinguishers: stored pressure and cartridge-operated. In stored pressure units, the expellant is stored in the same chamber as the firefighting agent itself. Depending on the agent used, different propellants are used. With dry chemical extinguishers, nitrogen is typically used; water and foam extinguishers typically use air. Stored pressure fire extinguishers are the most common type. Cartridge-operated extinguishers contain the expellant gas in a separate cartridge that is punctured prior to discharge, exposing the propellant to the extinguishing agent. This type is not as common, used primarily in areas such as industrial facilities, where they receive higher-than-average use. They have the advantage of simple and prompt recharge, allowing an operator to discharge the extinguisher, recharge it, and return to the fire in a reasonable amount of time. Unlike stored pressure types, these extinguishers use compressed carbon dioxide instead of nitrogen, although nitrogen cartridges are used on low temperature (-60 rated) models. Cartridge operated extinguishers are available in dry chemical and dry powder types in the US and in water, wetting agent, foam, dry chemical (classes ABC and BC), and dry powder (class D) types in the rest of the world.
Fire extinguishers are further divided into handheld and cart-mounted, also called wheeled extinguishers. Handheld extinguishers weigh from 0.5 to 14 kilograms (1 to 30 pounds), and are hence, easily portable by hand. Cart-mounted units typically weigh 23+ kilograms (50+ pounds). These wheeled models are most commonly found at construction sites, airport runways, heliports, as well as docks and marinas.
The first fire extinguisher of which there is any record was patented in England in 1723 by Ambrose Godfrey, a celebrated chemist at that time and to this day. It consisted of a cask of fire-extinguishing liquid containing a pewter chamber of gunpowder. This was connected with a system of fuses which were ignited, exploding the gunpowder and scattering the solution. This device was probably used to a limited extent, as Bradley's Weekly Messenger for November 7th, 1729, refers to its efficiency in stopping a fire in London.
The modern fire extinguisher was invented by British Captain George William Manby in 1818; it consisted of a copper vessel of 3 gallons (13.6 liters) of pearl ash (potassium carbonate) solution contained within compressed air.
The soda-acid extinguisher was first patented in 1866 by Francois Carlier of France, which mixed a solution of water and sodium bicarbonate with tartaric acid, producing the propellant CO2 gas. A soda-acid extinguisher was patented in the U.S. in 1881 by Almon M. Granger. His extinguisher used the reaction between sodium bicarbonate solution and sulfuric acid to expel pressurized water onto a fire. A vial was suspended in the cylinder containing concentrated sulfuric acid. Depending on the type of extinguisher, the vial of acid could be broken in one of two ways. One used a plunger to break the acid vial, while the second released a lead stopple that held the vial closed. Once the acid was mixed with the bicarbonate solution, carbon dioxide gas was expelled and thereby pressurized the water. The pressurized water was forced from the canister through a nozzle or short length of hose.
The cartridge-operated extinguisher was invented by Read & Campbell of England in 1881, which used water or water-based solutions. They later invented a carbon tetrachloride model called the "Petrolex" which was marketed toward automotive use.
The chemical foam extinguisher was invented in 1904 by Aleksandr Loran in Russia, based on his previous invention of fire fighting foam. Loran first used it to extinguish a pan of burning naphtha. It worked and looked similar to the soda-acid type, but the inner parts were slightly different. The main tank contained a solution of sodium bicarbonate in water, whilst the inner container (somewhat larger than the equivalent in a Soda-Acid unit) contained a solution of Aluminium Sulphate. When the solutions were mixed, usually by inverting the unit, the two liquids reacted to create a frothy foam, and carbon dioxide gas. The gas expelled the foam in the form of a jet. Although liquorice-root extracts and similar compounds were used as additives (stabilizing the foam by reinforcing the bubble-walls), there was no "foam compound" in these units. The foam was a combination of the products of the chemical reactions: Sodium and Aluminium salt-gels inflated by the carbon-dioxide. Because of this, the foam was discharged directly from the unit, with no need for an aspirating branchpipe (as in newer foam-compound types).
In 1910, The Pyrene Manufacturing Company of Delaware filed a patent for using a carbon tetrachloride (CTC) to extinguish fires. The liquid vaporized and extinguished the flames by inhibiting the chemical chain reaction of the combustion process (it was an early 20th century presupposition that the fire suppression ability of carbon tetrachloride relied on oxygen removal). In 1911, they patented a small, portable extinguisher that used the chemical. This consisted of a brass or chrome container with an integrated handpump, which was used to expel a jet of liquid towards the fire. It was usually of 1 imperial quart (1.1 L) or 1 imperial pint (0.6 L) capacity but was also available in up to 2 imperial gallon (9 L) size. As the container was unpressurized, it could be refilled after use through a filling plug with a fresh supply of CTC.
Another type of carbon-tetrachloride extinguisher was the Fire grenade. This consisted of a glass sphere filled with CTC, that was intended to be hurled at the base of a fire (early ones used salt-water, but CTC was more effective). Carbon tetrachloride was suitable for liquid and electrical fires and the extinguishers were fitted to motor vehicles. Carbon-tetrachloride extinguishers were withdrawn in the 1950s because of the chemical's toxicity–exposure to high concentrations damages the nervous system and internal organs. Additionally, when used on a fire, the heat can convert CTC to Phosgene gas, formerly used as a chemical weapon.
In the 1940s, Germany invented the liquid chlorobromomethane (CBM) for use in aircraft. It was more effective and slightly less toxic than carbon tetrachloride and was used until 1969. Methyl bromide was discovered as an extinguishing agent in the 1920s and was used extensively in Europe. It is a low-pressure gas that works by inhibiting the chain reaction of the fire and is the most toxic of the vaporizing liquids, used until the 1960s. The vapor and combustion by-products of all vaporizing liquids were highly toxic, and could cause death in confined spaces.
The carbon dioxide (CO2) extinguisher was invented (at least in the US) by the Walter Kidde Company in 1924 in response to Bell Telephone's request for an electrically non-conductive chemical for extinguishing the previously-difficult-to-extinguish fires in telephone switchboards. It consisted of a tall metal cylinder containing 7.5 lbs. of CO2 with a wheel valve and a woven brass, cotton covered hose, with a composite funnel-like horn as a nozzle. CO2 is still popular today as it is an ozone-friendly clean agent and is used heavily in film and television production to extinguish burning stuntmen. Carbon dioxide extinguishes fire mainly by displacing oxygen. It was once thought that it worked by cooling, although this effect on most fires is negligible. This characteristic is well known and has led to the widespread misuse of carbon dioxide extinguishers to rapidly cool beverages, especially beer.
In 1928, DuGas (later bought by ANSUL) came out with a cartridge-operated dry chemical extinguisher, which used sodium bicarbonate specially treated with chemicals to render it free-flowing and moisture-resistant. It consisted of a copper cylinder with an internal CO2cartridge. The operator turned a wheel valve on top to puncture the cartridge and squeezed a lever on the valve at the end of the hose to discharge the chemical. This was the first agent available for large scale three-dimensional liquid and pressurized gas fires, and was but remained largely a specialty type until the 1950s, when small dry chemical units were marketed for home use. ABC dry chemical came over from Europe in the 1950s, with Super-K being invented in the early 60s and Purple-K being developed by the US Navy in the late 1960s.
In the 1970s, Halon 1211 came over to the United States from Europe, where it had been used since the late 40s or early 50s. Halon 1301 had been developed by DuPont and the US Army in 1954. Both 1211 and 1301 work by inhibiting the chain reaction of the fire, and in the case of Halon 1211, cooling class A fuels as well. Halon is still in use today, but is falling out of favor for many uses due to its environmental impact. Europe, and Australia have severely restricted its use, since the Montreal Protocol of 1987. It is however still in use in the United States, the Middle East, and Asia.
Internationally there are several accepted classification methods for hand-held fire extinguisher. Each classification is useful in fighting fires with a particular group of fuel.
|Type||Pre-1997||Current||Suitable for use on Fire Classes (brackets denote sometimes applicable)|
|Water||Solid red||Solid red||A|
|Foam||Solid blue||Red with a blue band||A||B|
|Dry chemical (powder)||Red with a white band||Red with a white band||A||B||C||E|
|Carbon dioxide||Red with a black band||Red with a black band||(A)||B||E|
|Vaporising liquid (non-halon clean agents)||Not yet in use||Red with a yellow band||A||B||C||E|
|Halon||Solid yellow||No longer produced||A||B||E|
|Wet chemical||Solid oatmeal||Red with an oatmeal band||A||F|
In Australia, yellow (Halon) fire extinguishers are illegal to own or use on a fire, unless an essential use exemption has been granted.
According to the standard BS EN 3, fire extinguishers in the United Kingdom as all throughout Europe are red RAL 3000, and a band or circle of a second color covering between 5–10% of the surface area of the extinguisher indicates the contents. Before 1997, the entire body of the fire extinguisher was color coded according to the type of extinguishing agent.
The UK recognizes six fire classes:
|Type||Old code||BS EN 3 colour code||Suitable for use on fire classes|
(brackets denote sometimes applicable)
|Water||Signal red||Signal red||A|
|Foam||Cream||Red with a cream panel above the operating instructions||A||B|
|Dry powder||French blue||Red with a blue panel above the operating instructions||(A)||B||C||(E)|
|Carbon dioxide CO2||Black||Red with a black panel above the operating instructions||B||E|
|Wet chemical||Not yet in use||Red with a canary yellow panel above the operating instructions||A||(B)||F|
|Class D powder||French blue||Red with a blue panel above the operating instructions||D|
|Halon 1211/BCF||Emerald Green||No longer in general use||A||B||E|
Fire extinguishing performance per fire class is displayed using numbers and letters such as 13A, 55B.
EN3 does not recognise a separate electrical class - however there is an additional feature requiring special testing (35 kV dielectric test per EN 3-7:2004). A powder or CO2 extinguisher will bear an electrical pictogramme as standard signifying that it can be used on live electrical fires (given the symbol E in the table). If a water-based extinguisher has passed the 35 kV test it will also bear the same electrical pictogramme - however, any water-based extinguisher is only recommended for inadvertent use on electrical fires.
There is no official standard in the United States for the color of fire extinguishers, though they are typically red, except for Class D extinguishers, which are usually yellow, and water, which are usually silver, or white if water mist. Extinguishers are marked with pictograms depicting the types of fires that the extinguisher is approved to fight. In the past, extinguishers were marked with colored geometric symbols, and some extinguishers still use both symbols. The types of fires and additional standards are described in NFPA 10: Standard for Portable Fire Extinguishers, 2010 edition.
|Fire Class||Geometric Symbol||Pictogram||Intended Use||Mnemonic|
|A||Green Triangle||Ordinary solid combustibles||A for "Ash"|
|B||Red Square||Flammable liquids and gases||B for "Barrel"|
|C||Blue Circle||Energized electrical equipment||C for "Current"|
|D||Yellow Decagon (Star)||Combustible metals||--|
|K||Black Hexagon||Oils and fats||K for "Kitchen"|
Fire extinguishing capacity is rated in accordance with ANSI/UL 711: Rating and Fire Testing of Fire Extinguishers. The ratings are described using numbers preceding the class letter, such as 1-A:10-B:C. The number preceding the A multiplied by 1.25 gives the equivalent extinguishing capability in gallons of water. The number preceding the B indicates the size of fire in square feet that an ordinary user should be able to extinguish. There is no additional rating for class C, as it only indicates that the extinguishing agent will not conduct electricity, and an extinguisher will never have a rating of just C.
|Class A||Class A||Class A||Ordinary combustibles|
|Class B||Class B||Class B||Flammable liquids|
|Class C||Class C||Flammable gases|
|Class C||UNCLASSIFIED||Class E||Electrical equipment|
|Class D||Class D||Class D||Combustible metals|
|Class K||Class F||Class F||Cooking oil or fat|
Fire extinguishers are typically fitted in buildings at an easily-accessible location, such as against a wall in a high-traffic area. They are also often fitted to motor vehicles, watercraft, and aircraft - this is required by law in many jurisdictions, for identified classes of vehicles. Under NFPA 10 all commercial vehicles must carry at least one fire extinguisher, with size/UL rating depending on type of vehicle and cargo (i.e. fuel tankers typically must have a 9.1 kg (20 lb), while most others can carry a 2.3 kg (5 lb)). The revised NFPA 10 created criteria on the placement of "Fast Flow Extinguishers" in locations such as those storing and transporting pressurized flammable liquids and pressurized flammable gas or areas with possibility of three dimensional class B hazards are required to have "fast flow" extinguishers as required by NFPA 126.96.36.199. Varying classes of competition vehicles require fire extinguishing systems, the simplest requirements being a 1A:10BC hand-held portable extinguisher mounted to the interior of the vehicle.
This is a powder based agent that extinguishes by separating the four parts of the fire tetrahedron. It prevents the chemical reactions involving heat, fuel, and oxygen and halts the production of fire sustaining "free-radicals", thus extinguishing the fire.
Applied to fuel fires as either an aspirated (mixed & expanded with air in a branch pipe) or nonaspirated form to form a frothy blanket or seal over the fuel, preventing oxygen reaching it. Unlike powder, foam can be used to progressively extinguish fires without flashback.
Cools burning material.
Agent displaces oxygen (CO2 or inert gases), removes heat from the combustion zone (Halotron, FE-36) or inhibits chemical chain reaction (Halons). They are labelled clean agents because they do not leave any residue after discharge which is ideal for sensitive electronics and documents.
There are several Class D fire extinguisher agents available; some will handle multiple types of metals, others will not.
Most Class D extinguishers will have a special low velocity nozzle or discharge wand to gently apply the agent in large volumes to avoid disrupting any finely divided burning materials. Agents are also available in bulk and can be applied with a scoop or shovel.
Several modern ball or "grenade" style extinguishers are on the market. They are manually operated by rolling or throwing into a fire. The modern version of the ball will self destruct once in contact with flame, dispersing a cloud of ABC dry chemical powder over the fire which extinguishes the flame. The coverage area is about 5 square meters. One benefit of this type is that it may be used for passive suppression. The ball can be placed in a fire prone area and will deploy automatically if a fire develops, being triggered by heat. Most modern extinguishers of this type are designed to make a loud noise upon deployment.
This technology is not new, however. In the 1800s, glass fire grenades filled with suppressant liquids were popular. These glass fire grenade bottles are sought by collectors. Some later brands, such as Red Comet, were designed for passive operation, and included a special holder with a spring-loaded trigger that would break the glass ball when a fusible link melted. As was typical of this era, some glass extinguishers contained the toxic carbon tetrachloride.
Condensed aerosol fire suppression is a particle-based form of fire extinction similar to gaseous fire suppression or dry chemical fire extinction. As with gaseous fire suppressants, condensed aerosol suppressants use clean agents to suppress the fire. The agent can be delivered by means of mechanical operation, electric operation, or combined electro-mechanical operation. To the difference of gaseous suppressants, which emit only gas, and dry chemical extinguishers, which release powder-like particles of a large size (25-150 microns) condensed aerosols are defined by the National Fire Protection Association as releasing finely-divided solid particles (generally <10 microns), usually in addition to gas.
Whereas dry chemical systems must be directly aimed at the flame, condensed aerosols are flooding agents and therefore effective regardless of the location and height of the fire. Wet chemical systems, such as the kind generally found in foam extinguishers, must, similarly to dry chemical systems, be sprayed directionally, onto the fire. Additionally, wet chemicals (such as potassium carbonate) are dissolved in water, whereas the agents used in condensed aerosols are microscopic solids.
Most countries in the world require regular fire extinguisher maintenance by a competent person to operate safely and effectively, as part of fire safety legislation. Lack of maintenance can lead to an extinguisher not discharging when required, or rupturing when pressurized. Deaths have occurred, even in recent times, from corroded extinguishers exploding.
There is no all-encompassing fire code in the United States. Generally, most municipalities (by adoption of the International Fire Code) require inspections every 30 days to ensure the unit is pressurized and unobstructed (done by an employee of the facility) and an annual inspection by a qualified technician. Hydrostatic pressure testing for all types of extinguishers is also required, generally every five years for water and CO2 models up to every 12 years for dry chemical models.
Recently the National Fire Protection Association and ICC voted to allow for the elimination of the 30 day inspection requirement so long as the fire extinguisher is monitored electronically. According to NFPA, the system must provide record keeping in the form of an electronic event log at the control panel. The system must also constantly monitor an extinguisher’s physical presence, internal pressure and whether an obstruction exists that could prevent ready access. In the event that any of the above conditions are found, the system must send an alert to officials so they can immediately rectify the situation. Electronic monitoring can be wired or wireless.
In the UK, three types of maintenance are required:
In the United States there are 3 types of service as well:
Note: these are the required intervals for normal service conditions, if the extinguisher has been exposed to excessive heat, vibration, or mechanical damage it may need to be tested sooner.
The agent is emptied and depressurized and the valve is removed. After a thorough internal and external visual inspection, the cylinder is filled with water, placed inside a safety cage, and pressurized to the specified test pressure (varies with the type, age, and cylinder material) for the specified time period. If no failure, bulges, or leaks are detected, the cylinder passes. The cylinder is then emptied of water and thoroughly dried. CO2 types have the test date, company's ID, etc. stamped on the cylinder, all other types get a sticker on the back of the cylinder. Once dry, the units are recharged. Unlike the UK, the US does not rebuild extinguishers and replace valves at specific intervals unless parts are found to be defective, with the exception of halon. Halon types are often given new o-rings and valve stems at every internal maintenance to minimize any leakage potential.
OEM equipment must be used for replacement parts for the extinguisher to maintain its UL rating. If parts are unavailable, replacement is recommended, keep in mind extinguishers have a projected service life of about 25–35 years, although many are of such quality that they can outlast this, but realize that science is ever-changing, and something that was the best available 30 years ago may not be acceptable for modern fire protection needs.
Fire extinguishers are sometimes a target of vandalism in schools and other open spaces. Extinguishers are occasionally, partially or fully discharged by a vandal, impairing the extinguisher's actual firefighting abilities.
In open public spaces, extinguishers are ideally kept inside cabinets that have glass that must be broken to access the extinguisher, or which emit an alarm siren that cannot be shut off without a key, to alert people the extinguisher has been handled by an unauthorized person if a fire is not present.
Fire extinguisher identification signs are small signs designed to be mounted near a fire extinguisher, in order to draw attention to the extinguisher's location (e.g. if the Extinguisher is on a large pole, the sign would generally be at the top of the pole so it can be seen from a distance). Such signs may be manufactured from a variety of materials, commonly self-adhesive vinyl, rigid PVC and aluminum.
In addition to words and pictographs indicating the presence of a fire extinguisher, some modern extinguisher ID signs also describe the extinguishing agent in the unit, and summarize the types of fire on which it may safely be used.
Some public and government buildings are often required, by local legal codes, to provide an ID sign for each extinguisher on the site.
Most licensing authorities have regulations describing the standard appearance of these signs (e.g. text height, pictographs used and so on).
Photoluminescent fire extinguisher signs are made with nontoxic photoluminescent phosphor that absorbs ambient light and releases it slowly in dark conditions — the sign "glows in the dark". Such signs are independent of an external power supply, and so offer a low-cost, reliable means of indicating the position of emergency equipment in dark or smoky conditions. The luminance performance for life safety appliance location signs should meet the requirements of International Standard ISO 17398 so that the sign not only excite at very low ambient light level 25 Lux but they also have effective luminance intensity and longevity making the life safety message conspicuous in the event of power failure or if smoke obscures the emergency ceiling lights. The Photoluminescent Safety Products Association (PSPA) has guidance classifications for luminance performance to help users with application under International Maritime Organisation emergency equipment and life saving appliance location requirements and world wide industrial fire safety management requirements.
Photoluminescent signs are sometimes wrongfully described as being reflective. A reflective material will only return ambient light for as long as the light source is supplied, rather than storing energy and releasing it over a period of time. However, many fire extinguishers and extinguisher mounting posts have strips of retroreflective adhesive tape placed on them to facilitate their location in situations where only emergency lighting or flashlights are available.
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