Under Fire

By Ellen Wuagneux, Associate Editor | March 17, 2009

FR suppliers in the home furnishing sector deliver creative solutions in the face of unprecedented cost pressures and declining demand

When it comes to flammability regulations impacting the use of nonwovens in home furnishings, the most significant driver for flame retardant (FR) barriers since the 1970s has been 16 CFR Part 1632, the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s (CPSC) smoldering ignition mattress flammability standard. This performance standard re­quires mattress manufacturers to conduct a pre-market prototype test by placing burning cigarettes on six mattresses. In order to pass, the cigarettes may not produce a char length greater than two inches in any direction.

    In July 2007, a more recent open flame mattress flammability standard was adopted, 16 CFR Part 1633, which requires manufacturers to conduct a full-scale test. In order to meet the performance standard, the mattress set must not exceed 200 kW peak rate of heat release at any time during the 30 minute test and the total heat release must not exceed 15 MJ for the first 10 minutes of the test.

    This market could potentially face another milestone this year on the upholstered furniture end. CPSC’s flammability rulemaking (16 CFR Part 1634) was sent out for public comment in May but is still in limbo following the recent U.S. presidential election. The proposed standard establishes flammability performance requirements using a smoldering resistance test for cover materials (Type 1) or a smolder resistant test and an open flame test for interior barriers (Type 2). According to reports, CPSC staff was planning to begin testing in December to assess safety improvements under the 16 CFR Part 1634 proposal and include the results in a briefing for the commissioners later this year.

    “There’s a general awareness among lawmakers and CPSC that it’s been too many years and they need to get this done,” stated Jessica Franken, INDA’s director of government affairs, “but the work with the CPSIA (Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008) has to be slowing things down.”

     Related to that, EPA is still sitting tight on a possible “significant new use rule” (SNUR) under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) affecting flame retardants that could be used to meet the upholstered furniture flammability standard. The SNUR would require those using the targeted FRs in furniture to notify EPA 90 days before so EPA can evaluate the intended use. EPA is holding off on the SNUR until it has a better sense of where things stand with CPSC’s standard.

    As for protocol relating to the flammability of bed clothes, California’s TB604 regulation is in effect and is expected to eventually become a national standard. “The nonwovens industry will answer the flammability regulation for bed clothes,” commented Steve Ogle, technical director of INDA. “I think this will go down the same path as 1633 and become a federal standard. However, they will tweak it to be a little different because no state law can be more stringent than a federal law.”

    One company making the most of continuing growth in FR materials is Basofil Solutions, LLC, which targets the home furnishings industry with flame resistant yarns, fabrics, prefabricated parts and sewing thread utilizing Basofil heat and flame resistant fibers. The company, created in 2007, is sister to Basofil Fibers and sells its patented Alessandra sheath core flame resistant yarns and fabrics. Key end use markets include mattress barriers, top-of-the-bed furnishings, upholstered furniture and industrial applications. 

      While in general, state and federal regulations have bolstered sales for suppliers of flame retardant materials, they have also increased costs, which have been difficult to pass along to consumers. The current downturn in housing and furniture sales has only exacerbated the situation, putting more pressure than ever on suppliers to deliver more creative solutions. “The same is true in the automotive industry as we are seeing more FR requirements for safety concerns,” commented Pat Eberlein, market development manager for Huntsman International. “The entire industry is under difficult conditions and any costs associated with adding new performance requirements will need to be taken out of some other area of the product.”

    The struggling economy is taking its toll further downstream as well, as consumers think twice about major purchases such as mattresses and furniture and often downgrade to less expensive options. “The thicker and higher priced mattresses are being sold less frequently, which is having its effect on profitability with many bedding manufacturers,” observed Gerry Welkley, national sales manager for roll goods producer Precision Custom Coatings (PCC).

    He added that while this trend is a reflection of the current economic environment, FR barrier suppliers such as PCC have seen the average selling price trend lower as the barrier needed has come down in weight per square foot with thinner mattresses that have lower fuel loads. “Roll goods suppliers are under tremendous pressure as demand is at an all time low, leaving a lot of capacity” continued Mr. Welkley.    

    Nonwovens producers may take some solace in the fact that while things look bad for nonwovens, they look even worse for foam products. Crude oil prices, chemical regulations in Europe (REACH), U.S. bans on flame retardant chemistries such as PBDEs and recent efforts to require the U.S. DOT to label as hazardous all shipments of PU foams or products containing foam have the foam industry in turmoil.

    “These efforts have and will continue to put cost pressure on these foam-containing consumer products in a market that already suffers from the struggling economy,” opined Mr. Ogle of INDA. He went on to say that the nonwovens industry is developing products and infrastructure to meet this new demand by investing in research and manufacturing plants to create foam replacement products from nonwoven fiber products. This venture is well worth producers’ time as the U.S. home furnishings industry—mostly mattresses, furniture and carpet padding—uses more than one billion pounds of polyurethane foam annually.

A Green Home Is A Happy Home

To offset these intense pressures, many manufacturers are trying to appeal to customers by positioning their products as eco-friendly, added-value options. Consumer demand for more sustainable products is increasing the use of natural materials such as cotton, wool and renewable, recyclable fibers in household applications.

    The challenge is to achieve this without additional costs. At Huntsman, this trend has translated into efforts to eliminate antimony and halogen from FR chemistries as well as offer antimicrobial features. The company offers Flovan CGN flame retardants, which are halogen- and antimony-free, non-yellowing and low fogging, heat stable and suitable for synthetics and cellulosics (viscose and pulp). The corrosion resistant flame retardants are compatible with fluorochemicals, polymers and other finishing agents and are toxicologically and dermatologically safe.

    “Customers are looking to differentiate their end use products,” said Mike Disotelle, Huntsman’s global nonwovens manager. “One way they can achieve that is by adding key functional effects with their FR solutions, such as color, repellency and antimicrobial properties.” He added that manufacturers are working with blends of synthetic and cellulosic fibers to achieve optimum fabric performance and economics.             

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