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  • For Safety’s Sake: A seismic shift in risk reduction

In areas where earthquakes are common, seismic bracing is required to assist in fire suppression. To ensure stronger, more dependable bracing systems for sprinkler systems, Underwriters Laboratories (UL) recently updated its 203A Standard for Safety Sway Brace Devices for Sprinkler System Piping, which now requires testing seismic bracing components at more angles and increasing the safety factor used to establish brace capacities. In my opinion, UL 203A’s changes make positive strides toward mimicking real-world installations and increasing the overall safety of the public. 

About the updates

The revised UL 203A test standard was published in August of 2019 and manufacturers have until September of 2020 to test their products and update their listings to the new standard.

In addition to specifying more rigorous testing, UL 203A updates have increased the safety factor from 1.5 to 2.2. Any UL-listed parts made after September 2020 must be tested in accordance with the standard, with the listed loads tested to the 2.2 safety factor. While companies may continue to manufacture and sell their products as currently designed, those products must comply with new test specifications. It’s imperative that manufacturers complete all multi-angle and load tests prior to September 2020.

Together, these changes are important because they reduce the likelihood of electrical hazards. The SCCR calculations and equipment labels will instrumental to informing maintenance practices and future equipment upgrades. 

UL 203A’s changes make positive strides toward mimicking real-world installations and increasing the overall safety of the public. 

Zac Brown, seismic engineering supervisor, Eaton B-Line

Why the test rating update?

The driving force behind the update is alignment with the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) design standard. The latest NFPA 13 design standard recognizes that, when designers multiply Load and Resistance Factor Design loads by 0.7 to convert them to Allowable Stress Design (ASD) loads, the safety factor is effectively reduced.

By raising the safety factor to 2.2, NFPA 13 and UL 203A ensure designs using ASD still maintain a safety factor of 1.5. This, in my opinion, positively impacts seismic bracing at two levels. First, standardizing the safety factor across multiple design guides helps reduce the risk of engineers applying incorrect safety factors in their designs. With all safety factors now aligned, engineers should find it easier to locate and use the appropriate calculation. Secondly, the increase helps ensure that an appropriate safety factor is maintained when switching to the ASD method.

Testing method updates

While many testing updates to UL 203A were put in place, two are critically important in seismic brace component evaluation. Braces and structural attachments were formerly tested at only one angle. But because seismic braces can be installed at various angles, former tests didn’t accurately represent in-the-field conditions. Today’s updates mandate testing at a series of angles.

I feel this better reflects the true-to-life installed state and aligns with other third-party test procedures such as Factory Mutual, one of the industry’s most trusted seismic safety leaders. Additionally, the updates do away with the separate testing of structural attachments and sway brace fittings. Testing the two simultaneously makes more sense because all structural attachments require a sway brace fitting.

I believe these two changes better align with real-world scenarios, helping reduce the risk of failure during a seismic event. 

What the UL 203A changes mean for contractors

While changes to UL 203A should significantly impact safety during a seismic event, some installation contractors have raised concerns that the safety factor change may require the purchase of additional products and materials. Some also seek assurances that the products they’ve used for years maintain their catalog load dependability.  

Again, all products built after September 2020 must pass the tests outlined in UL 203A. If manufacturers make no product changes, their published catalog loads must be reduced. And some in the industry have chosen to avoid part redesigns. For instance, a brace used on 4” or smaller pipe that was 1,000 pounds will now list at 680 pounds after September 2020. In this example, the product’s published catalog load of 1,000 pounds under the former standard (1,500 test rating ÷ 1.5 = 1,000 pounds) would rate just over 680 pounds (1,500 test rating ÷ 2.2 = 682 pounds).

Eaton goes a step beyond to help ensure safety moving forward

While everyone in the industry must re-test their products to comply with UL 203A, we continue to advance our products and push for higher safety standards. In my opinion, it’s vital that published catalog loads ensure, at a minimum, the same product performance. That’s why we’ve elected to make product design modifications across our seismic bracing portfolio to maintain currently published catalog loads for as many of our products as possible and, in some cases, are changing designs to exceed newly required product loads.

Though not required by the new standard, we’re improving load ratings to potentially reduce the number of braces required, so contractors can invest less money and time during an install—while always adhering to installation and safety codes and requirements. In rare cases, contractors will need to refer to our updated catalogs to familiarize themselves on products with reduced loads. But, by and large, contractors won’t need to learn new ratings as most of our products will maintain or improve upon their performance loads.

It’s vital that published catalog loads ensure, at a minimum, the same product performance.

Zac Brown, seismic engineering supervisor, Eaton B-Line

Improved calculations for lesser weights: the future of UL 203A

For decades, the industry has relied on steel piping, and for good reason. Steel maintains its integrity under the most adverse conditions and seismic events. But the idea of reducing sprinkler system piping weight is gaining momentum. Some in the industry believe chlorinated polyvinyl chloride (CPVC) use is more advantageous; it’s lighter than steel and is easier to manipulate and install. And because it’s not subject to steel tariffs, CPVC is less expensive than steel.   

However, no guidelines exist for calculating CPVC loads. In my opinion, the material properties of CPVC dictate that loads for CPVC pipe should be lower than those of steel. Eaton is currently working with UL to develop a CPVC-specific UL test standard since load rating calculations for plastics now rely on steel standards. By way of example, our TOLCO Fig. 3000 sway brace is UL listed for use with CPVC pipes one to three inches in diameter. Because no testing parameters for CPVC exist, the calculated load is quite large and misrepresents the intended load factor of our much lighter material weight. 

The effect on safety and contractor confidence  

It’s important that contractors and their customers maintain a level of confidence whenever a significant change to a code or standard is passed. At Eaton, we’re doing our part to make sure the parts you’ll use tomorrow are as dependable as those installed today. Through modifications made across our seismic bracing portfolio, we continue to maintain today’s published catalog loads for as many of our parts as possible and look to exceed newly required product loads to increase on-the-job efficiencies and improve your bottom line. 

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