Following the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower, there is further constriction in the number of insurers willing to underwrite new risks with composite cladding panels that are non-Loss Prevention Certification (LPC) approved, in an already limited market. Where non approved panels were historically only a real issue in Food and other high hazard fire risks, we are now seeing Insurers’ underwriting capacity for this type of construction to continue with both reduced market capacity and significant premium increases.
What are composite panels?
Also known as sandwich panels, they are a popular construction material consisting of an insulation core sandwiched between two metal or plastic facings. Used extensively for external walls, internal structures and roof construction within a variety of industries, including cold storage, warehousing, food, hotels and other environments which adhere to stringent hygiene standards. Composite panels are a more favourable choice because of the following characteristics:
- Thermal insulation properties that curb heat and cold transmission
- Ability to muffle sound
- Light weight
- Easy construction
- Non-porous exterior that enables quick washing
- Lower cost compared to other materials
These factors can reduce initial construction costs and other ongoing expenses such as energy bills. While the benefits are clear, there also are serious risks involved with using composite panels. Depending on the core, panels can actually create a substantial fire hazard. The combustibility of composite panels depends on the material their core is made from. Buildings containing panelling with combustible cores are exposed to severe fire risks, including:
- The potential of rapidly spreading fire
- Difficulty of fighting fire due to the chemical and concealed nature of the combustible core
- Liquid fire produced from melting cores
- Creation of dense, corrosive and toxic smoke
- Material breakdown which can expose panels’ cores and exacerbate the spread of fire
When a panel core catches fire, its chemical nature makes it difficult to extinguish and contain. This can make it very dangerous for Fire and Rescue Service workers, and they may be limited to using only defensive fire-fighting tactics to prevent the spread of fire. In fact, except when human lives are at stake, the Fire and Rescue Service is reluctant to enter buildings in which combustible panels are on fire due to their high combustibility.
My building has composite panels!
In existing buildings, the core materials of any composite panels should be established and clearly identified using previous drawings and information. If the panels are LCPB approved, as part of the LCPB standard the panel carry a UV sticker on the back of them which can be proved by shining a UV light on them. In some cases, a small core sample can be collected to test and establish the type and composition of the foam materials used.
Composite panels with combustible insulation should be clearly marked with a hazard notice and should be documented on your Fire Risk assessment and Fire brigade crash box. The presence of combustible composite panels must be recognized and recorded within your fire risk assessments, due to the potential for extremely rapid fire spread and the release of large volumes of toxic smoke. In the event of a fire, have a site-specific hazard plan available for Fire Crews. This could take the form of suitably annotated floor plans indicating:
- The location and extent of combustible cored composite panels,
- Any separation by fire-resistant compartment walls,
- Provision of fixed fire protection systems,
- Hazard storage locations,
- Main service isolation points etc.
There are a number of Panel Marking schemes, in which standard indicator plates are fixed by entrances to buildings so as to inform the Fire Brigade of the type of panels to be found.
Any damaged combustible panels should be replaced with new panels that are for preference non-combustible or of the approved type, for example LPCB.
For new buildings or extensions consideration should always be given to the use of non-combustible panels where possible, or if not, then products which have been approved by a testing agency such as LPCB. Close liaison with your insurer is essential at the earliest design opportunity to ensure appropriate construction materials are considered.
What does this mean for my insurance?
Food is in the insurers “high risk” category, with the presence of polystyrene panels a straight decline for majority of insurers for new business.
We are seeing insurers require trade names and models before offering terms even where approved panels are in place, so we recommend having this information to hand early in your renewal process.
With a long history in food production insurance, the team at Castlemead are experienced in supporting businesses with composite panel challenges. As this trend for replacement requirement continues into other industries we have the experience to guide companies through their panel replacement journey.