Sunday, July 19, 2020

Flashback 2012: UL fights fires with science

Ready to burn: a bedroom at UL in a house about to be torched.

     A reader who works at UL, the former Underwriters Laboratories, commented on a column, and I thought I would share the visit I made to UL; a habit of mine, probably a bad one, of pushing my stuff on strangers. But as I tell young writers, if you don't care about your work, then nobody does. It didn't matter; I found I hadn't posted it. Let's correct that. Not many reporters get into UL; I lucked out. A neighbor who worked there was telling me that UL would be burning down a few houses the following week, and I asked, "Can that process be observed?"  She managed to get me in, but it was a near thing, and I could tell UL is one of those organizations that shrinks from the public gaze. I'm not sure why. Maybe they're just terrible at publicity, a common ailment.

     The fire in the house at 333 Pfingsten Rd. in Northbrook started on a sofa in the living room. In minutes, the room was engulfed in flames, the smoke detectors bleating out their alarm, unheeded.
     No one called the fire department—indeed, firefighters were already there, nearly a dozen, from departments across the country, watching the progress of the blaze on television monitors in a nearby room.
     The world headquarters campus of UL—formerly Underwriters Laboratories—is at 333 Pfingsten, the house on fire is one of two homes built side-by-side within UL's Building 11, an enormous hangar, 120 feet square.
     The false ceiling is the largest land-based elevator in the world, raised and lowered by four enormous hydraulic cylinders, one at each corner, to test the ideal height of sprinkler systems and see if they can put out burning roomfuls of car dashboards or barrels of whiskey (or, memorably, rolls of toilet paper, the charred, soggy remains of which took two days to clean up using front-end loaders). The ventilation system is so powerful it can capture the black smoke pouring out of a house aflame and scrub it clean by actually reburning the smoke. Fresh air is pumped back in to keep house fires from sucking out all the oxygen in the room.
     UL runs more than 100,000 tests a year on 19,000 products from toasters to X-ray machines at 68 facilities around the world. Founded in 1894, with 1,700 employees in Northbrook, UL nevertheless is one of the lower profile Chicago-based businesses.
     "Most of my neighbors have no idea we're out here," said John Drengenberg, Consumer Safety Director at UL.
     In this test, UL has been investigating firefighting procedures, funded by FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security.
     "What we're researching is the best way to ventilate the fire," Drengenberg said. "This is focused not on consumers, but on firefighters. How can they best do their job, how can they best keep their men safe?"
     Residential fires have declined but firefighter injuries have not, and the theory is outdated techniques might be to blame. Under scrutiny in today's test is the practice of chopping holes in the roof to let out heat.
     "That was the best way at one time—it may not be the best way today, and the reason is that so many materials in your home are synthetic," Drengenberg said. "The backing on your carpet is reconstituted soda bottles. You've got synthetics on your drapes, your furniture. They're infinitely more flammable than cotton, silk or leather, because they're oil-based."
     In decades past, homeowners were told they had 17 minutes to get out after a fire started. Now they have three, four minutes.
     Gathered in an observation room are firefighters from Chicago, the suburbs, New York and Cleveland, plus representatives from federal agencies and colleges.
     "The fuel has changed, construction has changed, our mindset has not," said Frank Rodgers, district chief of the Morton Grove Fire Department.
     Eight minutes after the fire is set, the house's front door is opened, as if firefighters were entering. Black smoke pulses from under the lintel. Two firefighters—UL has its own full-time fire department —advance with a hose. Meanwhile, on the roof, a 4-by-4 hatch is opened—as if a hole were being chopped—and water is shot through. Sensors measure temperature, smoke density.
     The fire is put out quickly—it will be a longer process to repair the damage so the house is in condition to be burned again. Tests run through the end of February.
     While some firefighters present are eager to take the results back to their departments, UL will carefully study the results before issuing an official report.
     "We still have to analyze the data," Drengenberg said.
     "Since everything in the fire service has been largely based on tradition, now it's more science-based, but before they accept any new options, they want to see the data," said Daniel Madrzykowski, a fire protection engineer at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. "The thinking is, 'This isn't how we've always done it, so why should we change?' And that's really the importance of all these tests."

       —Originally published in the Sun-Times Jan. 25, 2012


  1. This is one of the most important institutions in the world. All electrical products, etc, need that UL Listing or Approval. Drive by that place all the time and worked with a guy that worked there. Wish I could have went and watched too. What they do is so cool but so important to our every day lives. This seems like the real "fun" side of your career. And you do it so very well.

  2. interesting piece. i've been reading you for years, but don't remember this one. thanks for the reprint

  3. Dude, that's got to be one of the coolest places to work, much less visit. I thought the coolest was the Memorial Tunnel under Paint Creek Mountain in WV (now closed to the public and renamed The Center for National Response) but this definitely rivals it.


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