Quite often the headline reads “Plumbers Torch Blamed for Fire, Home Destroyed” while some of the headlines may not be accurate, enough of them are. In my opinion far too many fires are caused by careless use of a plumbing torch. Each Year in the US approximately 5,580 fires amounting to $208,000,000 damages are listed as being caused by plumbers torches, burners, and soldering equipment. The environment that we plumbers work in is ripe with hazards for torch use. Many older buildings have pipe chases that do not have proper fire stopping installed, and or, balloon frames that virtually create a chimney from the basement to the attic. Insulation may be installed that is combustible, just waiting for the touch of a torch flame or, even just a spark. Drafts may be present in walls that suck the flame into contact with combustible materials. Metals may conduct heat from contact with a torch along the metal to combustible materials igniting them. There is also just plain careless work being done in close contact with combustible building materials.
There are safety items that a plumber should carry in the pipe sweating kit to prevent fires and if one occurs to fight the fire while it is still small. Every plumber’s sweating kit should have a fire extinguisher, a flame protective mat, and a spray bottle filled with water at a minimum. Savvy plumbers would also carry products like Cool Gel and Bloc-It which can block the heat from the torch from reaching combustibles and charring them or igniting them. In this day and age with the products we have available for our use there is no excuse for BBQ’d 2X4’s.
The Fire Extinguisher should be a multi-purpose dry chemical extinguisher that is UL Rated for ABC use. The minimum size would be a 2 1/2 lb. extinguisher and have a rating of 1A 10BC assigned Underwriters Laboratories. This extinguisher will actually weigh about 4 lbs. but carries inside 2 1/2 lbs. of dry chemical extinguishing agent. This agent will discharge in about 8 – 12 seconds and have an effective range of 6 – 8 feet. The amount of discharge time does not afford a lot of time for learning how to operate the extinguisher so it is a good idea to become acquainted with its operation and usage techniques before needing to use it. For plumbers or plumbing companies wanting training on how to use fire extinguishers I suggest contacting your insurance carrier loss prevention specialist or, your local fire department fire prevention officer. You will find that they are often very willing to come to your office and provide training to your employees. The training will include how to inspect an extinguisher, selection of an extinguisher, classifications of fire, how to use different extinguishers and may even include live fire training.
Flame Protective Mat
The Flame Protective Mat is a special heat resistant cloth that may be positioned as a barrier to keep the torch flame from damaging materials close to the solder joint. These cloths are woven from modern heat resistant threads. Materials used to make these threads include ceramics and silica. The torch flame may be in contact with the cloth on one side yet the other side is cool. Many plumbers use a piece of stovepipe thinking it will offer protection but, the red hot stove pipe is red hot on both sides and the damaging heat is conducting right through to the other side. It is not even close to being as effective as the Flame Protective mat.
Water Spray Bottle
The water spray bottle is used to wet down combustible surfaces and materials near the area where the torch is being used. It is also effective at extinguishing small fires or, smoldering items.
The last two items in the safety kit would include items that are fairly newly developed products and many savvy plumbers are already using them with great results. LA-CO Industries Inc. is marketing Cool Gel and Bloc-It that offer outstanding heat protection.
Cool Gel comes in a spray bottle and is essentially a heat barrier gel that is sprayed on things in close proximity to where the torch is being used. The gel provides a barrier that offers outstanding protection from the heat. At a demonstration of the product a $100 bill was coated with the gel then put directly into the flame of the torch. The bill was not damaged and the line formed at the counter to buy the product. The gel is non-staining and can be wiped off or simply left to evaporate which it will in 24 – 48 hours. It will stick to any surface, won’t drip, it is non-toxic and harmless to skin.
Bloc-It comes in a squeeze tube and is similar to a paste or, caulk in consistency and blocks conduction of heat by absorbing it from the surface. If you put a ring of Bloc-It around a pipe then heat the pipe on one side of the Block it the pipe on the other side will remain cool. This product is ideal for protecting the components inside of a shower valve from damage even while sweating directly to the valve without removing the internal components. This is also non-staining, non-toxic, harmless to skin and easy to clean.
In this day and age with the products we have available for our use there really is no excuse for BBQing 2 X 4’s in close proximity to a solder joint. We must also be ready with the proper safety equipment in our soldering kit to immediately deal with a fire if one should occur. In the time it takes to run out of a house to get a fire extinguisher out of the truck a fire can easily grow large enough that the extinguisher is too small. We must also look out for hazards and conditions in the work area, the type of construction, combustible materials and drafts. Any day that you do not have to call the fire department to your job site is a good day.