UL 300 Compliance
It’s time to take a radical stance on restaurant fire safety.
Automatic fire suppression systems for commercial kitchen hoods—called “restaurant systems” in the fire protection industry—have been required to comply with Standard UL 300 since 1994. Older non-UL 300 systems are not designed to handle fires in modern kitchens, and keeping one of these systems in place typically costs more than upgrading to a modern model. Despite these facts, a dwindling handful of commercial kitchen operators continue to hold onto their old systems. With 7,600 restaurant fires occurring annually in the US, that’s a poor bet to take. Click below to learn more.
- A Bit of Background
A Bit of Background
Restaurant fire systems are proprietary and pre-engineered. Proprietary means each system is a “package deal” where only the parts specified by that system’s manufacturer can be used. Pre-engineered means these specified parts were designed by engineers to be used a certain way—and only that certain way—for the system to work as intended. Pre-engineering by the manufacturer means UL 300 fire suppression system cost is typically lower than comparable engineered systems, such as sprinkler systems, because ABCO’s in-house engineers don’t have to design each one. Once the manufacturer’s engineers determine how the parts are to be used in a restaurant fire system, they need to verify the system will work as intended—and that’s where UL comes in.
Formerly known as Underwriters Laboratories, UL is an independent testing lab that focuses on consumer product safety. Before offering a product for sale, manufacturers test the product themselves, and then send representative samples of the product to UL for third-party testing. If the product passes UL’s testing process it earns a “UL Listing,” which means it meets UL’s strict standards for safety. Different types of products have different UL testing processes: the testing process for light bulbs is different from that for sump pumps, which is different from the process for smoke detectors, etc. In the case of restaurant fire systems, the testing process is defined by a document called “Standard UL 300.”
The full name of UL 300 is “Standard for Fire Testing of Fire Extinguishing Systems for Protection of Commercial Cooking Equipment,” and it governs testing of pre-engineered commercial cooking fire systems. This standard lists specific methods of testing each type of cooking appliance, and specific benchmarks that must be met for the fire system to be considered effective. These tests seek to mimic a worst-case-scenario fire in the type of appliance being tested. This standard does not apply to engineered fire systems, fire systems used to protect other hazards, or fire systems intended for residential cooking equipment.
- Why Was UL 300 Adopted?
Why Was UL 300 Adopted?
Since 1994, Standard 300 has been the only method that UL has used to test restaurant fire systems. Prior to that, the standards for testing these systems weren’t as strict, but may have been effective for the appliances and cooking methods of the time. When restaurant fire systems were first introduced in the late 1950s, efficiency wasn’t a major selling point of cooking appliances, deep frying wasn’t as common, and when food was deep fried it was typically done in animal fat. With time consumer attitudes toward energy use and saturated fat consumption evolved, and so did fire systems. But why does the efficiency of an appliance or the type of oil it contains matter for fire protection?
To understand that, we need to go back to science class and review the “Fire Pyramid.” Put simply: Heat + Fuel + Oxygen create fire, and if you remove any one of those elements the fire goes out. Vegetable oil has a higher flash point than animal fat, meaning it takes more heat to catch on fire, and more heat needs to be lost before the fire can be definitively put out. Modern cooking appliances are designed to be as efficient as possible, so they hold heat extremely well. When restauranteurs ditched lard for vegetable oil and brought in more efficient appliances to save on fuel costs, they inadvertently made fires in their establishments harder to put out. This became evident as chain restaurants witnessed recurring issues with fryer fires re-starting after the old restaurant fire system initially seemed to extinguish it. To combat these issues, UL 300 was developed.
- How Did Restaurant Fire Systems Change?
How Did Restaurant Fire Systems Change?
UL 300 wet chemical systems use chemistry to break up the fire pyramid. The fire-suppressing chemicals released by these systems combine with hot oil to create a foamy blanket that smothers the surface of cooking grease. With the fuel (gas and/or electricity) automatically shut off by the fire system, this blanket keeps oxygen from the cooking oil until the appliance cools below the flash point of the oil. Even in appliances that don’t contain oil, these wet chemicals are extremely effective at extinguishing fires and cooling cooking surfaces.
These three factors—automatic fuel shut-off, cold wet chemical, and foamy blanket—are the keys to removing heat and oxygen, and meeting UL 300 requirements. Older restaurant fire systems included one or two of the factors, but not all three. These older systems used powdery dry chemical or low quantities of wet chemical, and could not pass the realistic fire testing of UL 300. It should be noted that dry chemical systems are effective for non-cooking hazards, but can no longer be used in commercial kitchens.
Another type of fire protection system that was once common in commercial kitchens uses carbon dioxide (CO2) to extinguish fires. These systems are engineered, not pre-engineered, and as such are not subjected to UL 300 testing. CO2 systems continue to be a viable option for protecting certain hazards, and they can still be found in some institutional and industrial kitchens. Compared to modern restaurant systems however, these systems are large and expensive to install and maintain, so they have fallen out of regular use as protection for cooking hazards.
- Why Upgrade?
It has been more than twenty years since UL 300 went into effect, and keeping a non-UL 300 system is no longer a realistic option. Loss of insurance coverage, cease and desist orders from fire officials, inability to recharge the system, and inability to find a fire protection company willing to service the system are all challenges that face owners of these non-compliant models. In addition, modern systems often allow restaurant owners to open within hours of a fire (check out this blog post for more), while non-UL 300 systems have the power to shut a restaurant down for a period of days, weeks, or indefinitely—even without a fire.
At this point, manufacturers no longer support non-UL 300 equipment. The parts for these systems have been phased out over the past two decades, and they are considered obsolete and non-compliant with current standards. Due to this lack of available replacement parts, upgrading some systems has become more of a challenge over time. In the 1990s some manufacturers found their systems could pass UL 300 testing when a handful of components were replaced, and that became standard practice for a number of years. Since the early 2000s however, most manufacturers require major system components be replaced with modern parts to achieve a compliant upgrade.
Given the need to replace most of the system, many restauranteurs worry about the cost of upgrading an aging unit. It’s worthwhile therefore to look at the cost of other options available to owners of non-UL 300 fire systems.
Option #1: Betting Against Statistics
The absolute best case scenario under any circumstances would be that fire never breaks out in the restaurant. Unfortunately, statistics say otherwise. There are around 21 reported restaurant fires in the United States every day , and the majority of those are caused by cooking equipment. Those 21 daily fires add up to over 7,600 fires annually—fires that are responsible for an average of two deaths and 115 injuries every year.
If the owner of a non-UL 300 system wishes to ignore these statistics and leave his or her obsolete fire system in place, outside cooperation is needed. First, they need an overwhelmed local fire department that can’t perform thorough inspections as often as they’d like (unfortunately more common than many think). Then they’ll need an insurance agent who can find a policy that will cover a restaurant with an aging fire system. Just ignoring the system isn’t enough, if a fire occurs the UL 300 status of the fire system will be revealed and claims will be denied. Lastly they’ll need a fire protection company that will continue to maintain the obsolete fire system. This is a legal practice and many still do it, even though fire protection providers who assist their customers in maintaining unsafe fire systems are often the targets of litigation when fire occurs.
If all of these factors fall into place and a fire never occurs, then the commercial kitchen owner is good to go until… Well, that’s the question. When will changes at the fire department, insurance company, or fire protection company occur? That is, if a fire doesn’t happen first. Any of these things can complicate life very quickly for the owner of a non-UL 300 system.
Option #2: Dealing with Downtime
A fire occurs, the non-UL 300 system goes off and an employee uses a Type K fire extinguisher to help put the fire out. Fortunately, no one is hurt and damage is minimal. Immediately following the fire the restauranteur calls his fire protection company to clean the hood, recharge the kitchen fire extinguisher, and re-set the fire system. Within 2 hours the hood cleaners get to work, but unfortunately the fire system tech reminds the customer that his fire system is obsolete and the parts needed to recharge it are unavailable. Additionally the fire official issues a notice stating that the restaurant cannot re-open until the fire system is upgraded.
Luckily the parts needed to upgrade the system are in stock, so the fire protection company can get to work just as soon as the city grants them a permit to do so. A couple of weeks later a permit is granted, the fire system is upgraded within a few days, the fire official witnesses a test the next day, and restaurant operator resumes normal operations within 2 to 3 weeks of the fire.
Option #3: Fighting the Insurance Company
A fire occurs and causes a catastrophic loss. No one was injured or killed, but the building is a charred shell with no chance of being re-built. Fortunately the insurance agent that visited the restaurant a couple of years ago didn’t notice the non-UL 300 fire system (and the restaurant owner didn’t say anything about it because he needed a policy and didn’t want to pay extra for it), so it seems everything should be covered.
Following the fire, the insurance company sends out an investigator to find out what happened. He finds evidence that the system was not UL 300 compliant, and the fire clearly started in the kitchen (as the vast majority of restaurant fires do). The insurance company initially denies all claims associated with the fire, and the restaurant owner takes them to court. The restaurant remains closed with no shot of reopening until the fate of the insurance claim is decided by the legal system.iii
- ABCO’s Stance
At ABCO, we’re passionate about what we do. Fire safety is much more than a business to us, and our record of public service and education in the interest of fire safety demonstrates that. While it is legal for fire protection companies to inspect non-UL 300 fire systems, it hasn’t felt right to us for a long time. How can we say we’re passionate about fire protection, and then turn a blind eye toward customers who overlook the safety of their employees, customers, and neighbors?
Therefore, we have decided to put our values above our bottom line and take a stand against non-UL 300 systems. ABCO Fire’s policy on the topic can be easily summed up:
- We will upgrade any non-UL 300 restaurant fire system.
- We will not inspect any non-UL 300 restaurant fire system unless we have a binding agreement to upgrade it.
It may seem simple, but it was a tough decision to make. We take pride in the relationships we have built with our customers, relationships that often last decades. Taking a stance like this was going to put some of those relationships in jeopardy, we knew that—but we also knew more was at stake.
This isn’t a common stance in our industry, but we hope it becomes one. For the safety of commercial kitchen owners, employees, and patrons, these older systems need to be removed from service and replaced with effective tested models. It’s been over 20 years. It’s about time.
Every restaurant fire system is designed specifically for the appliances, hood, and duct it protects. This means every UL 300 upgrade quote that ABCO Fire generates is unique. If you have an old system that needs upgrading, please contact our offices today at 800-875-7200, or email our Restaurant System Installation Department directly at RestaurantInstall@abcofire.com.
- Fire Pyramid image by Gustavb, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fire_triangle.svg
- Bill Griffin, “60 Years of Commercial Kitchen Fire Suppression,” ASHRAE Journal, June 2014.
- Ansul R-102 computer-generated image by Tyco Fire Products LP, “R-102 Liquid Agent Restaurant System Operation,” https://ansul.com/en/us/pages/Education.aspx?ProductSegment=Restaurant+Systems&VxID=43
- Ben Evarts, “Structure Fires in Eating and Drinking Establishments,” 2012, NFPA Fire Analysis and Research Division.
- “Busting the UL 300 Money Myth” White Paper, 2013, Tyco Fire Products LP.