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A New Fire Resistance Laboratory in Chile

Flexible Lab Enables Testing to Various International Standards

by Ryan Lambert

Completed Test Oven

In May 2002, an innovative new fire resistance laboratory opened in Santiago, Chile. This lab, one of a kind in Latin America, not only enables the testing of materials in accordance with all current ASTM, National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and International Organization for Standardization (ISO) standards but also offers a unique opportunity to further promote materials research and development, as well as educate fire professionals throughout Latin America.

Project Development

The project, which began in 1998 at the Pontifical Catholic University in Santiago, has involved an international collaboration of engineers, educators and government officials from Chile and the United States. Originally conceived by Pontifical University Professor Juan de Dios Rivera, the laboratory was initially designed to administer to Chile’s limited fire technology and safety practices. Citing an almost threefold increase in fire related claims between 1989 and 1997 and dramatic changes in Chilean construction volume and practices, Professor Rivera and his team set out to develop a national laboratory with the capacity to meet Chile’s increasing testing and development needs.

Santiago Fire Laboratory Frame Construction, October 2001

Acknowledging that the market for fire resistance research and testing is quite small in Chile, it was necessary to converge testing services, new technology development, and scientific research capable of meeting both Chilean and international standards within a single laboratory. Recognizing that standards testing is an important component of international trade, the United States Embassy in Santiago and the U.S. National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) illustrated their strong support for the project by inviting the lab director, Pablo Matamala, to visit North American facilities for further training and project guidance. Matamala visited laboratories at NFPA, NIST, Underwriters Laboratories and leading university and private research facilities.

The Finished Lab

Locally designed and built, the $783,000 lab utilizes a single rotating furnace that can accommodate horizontal, vertical and column specimens. The lab conforms to all Chilean standards, as well as ASTM E 119, Test Methods for Fire Tests of Building Construction and Material; NFPA 251, Methods of Tests of Fire Endurance of Building Construction and Materials; and ISO 834, Fire-resistance tests — Elements of building construction — Part 1: General requirements. This innovative design allows for the consolidation of several different testing and research simulations into a single, highly efficient laboratory. The oven is also fully instrumented for automatic control and data acquisition and is equipped primarily with U.S. laboratory imports. Primary funding for the project was provided by the Chilean government through the Fund for Development and Innovation with additional support coming from the Pontifical Catholic University and the Chilean Ministry of Housing and Urbanism.

The lab’s objectives are being met rapidly as a wide variety of building and construction materials and coatings are being tested regularly in order to improve their fire behavior. The preliminary modeling of multi-layer walls and the development of new testing standards for intumescent paint are just some of the innovative research projects currently being conducted. The capacity to test to international standards is also proving to be one of the lab’s most important features.

With trade agreements recently signed between Chile and both the United States and Europe, product standards are rapidly becoming the next major barrier to trade. By adhering to the more rigorous standards of both of these regions, the fire lab allows certification of international products for the Chilean market, and assists in the development of Chilean goods for international distribution. In this regard, discussions are currently under way with USG, a leading American manufacturer of building materials, in order to validate their products for Chilean entry. In addition, lab directors are seeking further UL certification, which will greatly enhance Chilean product marketability worldwide. With further trade opportunities to be made available through the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, Chile’s fire laboratory also offers a regional resource to neighboring Latin American countries. While Brazil and Argentina also maintain fire resistance testing equipment, their services are limited to only a single orientation (horizontal or vertical) and do not conform fully to international standards.

Fire professionals are also beginning to capitalize on the lab’s educational and training resources, recently taking part in an NFPA seminar at the site. In conjunction with a new post-graduate fire-safety program to begin in 2003, the university lab is certain to become a premier regional training facility as envisioned. By educating a network of trained engineers, construction managers, and architects, the laboratory is ensuring continued development of fire-resistant materials and structures for use within Chile and the world over. //

Copyright 2003, ASTM

Ryan Lambert is a graduate student of international management at the University of California, San Diego. Until December 2002, he served as an intern of the U.S. Department of Commerce at the U.S. Embassy in Santiago, Chile, where he pursued independent research and coursework at Pontifical Catholic University.