Fire Extinguisher Test
The Kidde Pro Plus 5HM is our top choice among the clean-agent portables. The Sea-Fire, with its lower toxicity, makes sense for enclosed spaces. We also like the Kidde Foam Spray's ability to stop re-ignition.
Consider how a fire might start aboard your boat—a spark into an engine fuel leak, a spark into a propane leak, a burning bit of ash into a dry trash bin, a spoonful of flaming stove alcohol into the paper goods, an electrical short—the possibilities are many. Now consider how far and how fast the fire might progress—through curtains, cushions, vinyl headliner, oiled and varnished wood, into more fuel supplies. No need to imagine further: A fire that gets out of control on a boat is a nightmare, and has been so since the days of wooden ships with tarred rigging and gunpowder down below. Today we have plastic boats with all manner of flammable materials aboard, including, very often, propane. So the seriousness of fire aboard stretches right through the ages, as does the difficulty of running across water in order to escape.
The decision to abandon ship in the face of a fire has to be one of the hardest anyone can make, and it's impossible for anyone who's not present in a particular situation to know when that decision should be made. Some people have probably given up too easily, and some, undoubtedly, have stayed too long. The one thing that's well-known is that the faster and more effectively you can attack a fire, the better chance you'll have of beating it, saving your boat, and surviving. Some of the success will depend on crew training and preparedness. The location of the fire extinguishers is also critical. One rule of thumb is never to mount an extinguisher where you might have to reach through fire to get to it. In other words, don't mount one on the far side of the stove. And some success will depend on the performance of the equipment itself.
We last evaluated handheld fire extinguishers in our August 15, 2001 issue, and had a hard time picking a winner. All five extinguishers performed similarly and up to spec. In the end, we picked the Kidde UN 1044 because it discharged for a slightly longer time than the others, and it was the only one rated to handle Class A fires as well as B and C (although it was not strongly rated for A). And, it had a sturdy metal bracket instead of plastic. It was a bear to clean up after, though.
If a slightly longer discharge seems like a slim criterion, we can only say that over many years we've become convinced that the best fire extinguisher is the one that shoots the most stuff for the longest time. Not very technical, but there you have it: When you put out a fire, you really don’t want it to rekindle; you want to make sure it's good and out, and sometimes a few extra seconds of ammo can make that difference. So to us it makes sense to buy the biggest fire extinguishers you can manage.
In that article, the 1044 was top-dog among U. S. Coast Guard approved models, but our actual favorite was the Kidde Fire-Out Foam extinguisher, an aqueous foam model, not USCG-approved, but effective on Class A and B fires, easy to clean up, and not too expensive.
In a follow-up Chandlery published in the July 1, 2003 issue, we reviewed a small, quick-grab, first-line-of-defense product called Flamestop, which had a water-based surfactant in an aerosol-type (air-powered) sprayer. Although it was not approved by the USCG for marine firefighting, we found it effective, cheap, and easy to clean up after with soap and water. We recommended it as a supplement for a more robust firefighting system. While that particular product is no longer on the market, there are others that are similar, such as Fire First Aide, available from Palladium Industries in Fairhaven, MA (www.palladiumindustries.com). Note that this type of product (usually called a suppressant, not an extinguisher) should be used only on small Class A and Class B fires, not on electrical fires.
For Class A fires (where solid combustibles like wood and fabric serve as the fuel), it's hard to beat good, old H20, which is found in cheap abundance around boats. Aqueous foam extinguishers are also effective on this kind of fire, but may not be Coast Guard-approved. CO2 fire extinguishers are effective on Class B (combustible liquids like gas and oil) and C fires (electrical), and leave no messy residue, but have some drawbacks. The CO2 is under high pressure, yet the extinguishers are bigger and heavier than their dry chemical counterparts. While CO2 is effective in enclosed spaces, it disperses quickly in open air, so it isn't particularly good against fires where there's significant ventilation. The ventilation meanwhile provides oxygen to the fire, further negating the smothering effect of the CO2. And because there's no fire-retardant residue, a fire only partially smothered by CO2 can more easily rekindle itself.
By far the most common and least expensive handheld fire extinguishers found aboard small boats are the dry chemical type. The extinguishing agents are usually sodium bicarbonate or potassium bicarbonate for Class B and C fires. Extinguishers that are also rated for Class A fires usually contain mono-ammonium phosphate. This is a highly corrosive chemical, so if you use an ABC unit to put out a live electrical fire in the nav station, you're likely to damage your electronics.
Because of the ban on halon that went into effect a few years ago (halon turned out to be a leading destroyer of the ozone layer), the firefighting industry has been challenged to come up with halon-replacement chemicals, and has done so admirably. One of these replacements is Halotron, made by the American Pacific Corporation; another is FM-200, made by the Great Lakes Chemical Corporation; a third is FE-241, made by DuPont.
What distinguishes these firefighting agents is that they're safe for the environment, leave little or no residue after discharge, and, unlike CO2, don't pose the threat of thermal shock if used on a hot engine. They also make for mighty expensive fire extinguishers.
What We Tested
That brings us to the practical side of this article. We wanted to try out some of the handheld fire-extinguishers that use the new "clean agent" chemicals, and compare them with the favored USCG-approved model from last time, the Kidde UN 1044, as well as the Kidde Spray Foam extinguisher (model 466620), which is exactly the same as the Fire-Out Foam extinguisher tested last time, just renamed.
From Kidde we obtained several of the Pro Plus 5H extinguishers, which are Halotron-based, and three Kidde Spray Foam units. From Fireboy-Xintex we received three of the Model 70551 five-pound portables. These use Halotron as the extinguishing agent, while fixed-mount Fireboy extinguishing systems use either FE-241 or HFC-227, a similar agent. And from Sea-Fire we tried the five-pound C-50 units, which use FM-200.
All of these fire extinguishers are USCG-approved, with the exception of the Kidde Spray Foam unit. Interestingly, the Kidde engineer we talked to said that he keeps Coast Guard-approved dry chemical extinguishers aboard his boat to fulfill the letter of the law, but also carries one of his Spray Foam units as a first line of defense for Class A and B fires. This is exactly what we recommended in our 2001 article.
How We Tested
Because all fire extinguishers are already UL-rated, or at least UL-classified, our own tests were quite simple, and followed the same procedure we’ve used before, only this time with the help of the Sarasota (FL) Fire Department. We floated a layer of gasoline on top of a pool of water in a large tub, added some Class A combustible material (sticks), and tossed in a match. We then attempted to extinguish the fire according to the manufacturers' instructions on the fire extinguishers. We recorded the time it took to fully extinguish the fire, then timed the remainder of discharge. We noted how easy the devices were to operate, and how accurate. We studied labels and instructions, measured and weighed each extinguisher, examined mounting brackets, and noted any positive or negative ergonomic features.
What We Found
Two of the five extinguishers tested—the Kidde Spray Foam and the Sea-Fire C50—have short hoses attached to their nozzles. The hoses allow for a more accurate shot, but the setup does require two hands—one to hold the canister and the other to point the hose.
Our testers preferred the units without hoses, figuring that on a boat, you may need your other hand for balance—and your balance will affect your accuracy.
All of the extinguishers are easy to operate. They require you simply to pull a pin, squeeze a lever, and shoot (using a sweeping motion). One tester had difficulty removing the Sea-Fire canister from its bracket because its hose is held in place with a separate clip. The lesson here is to practice removing the canisters from their brackets. Another tester pinched his hand in between the lever and the hand grip of the Kidde Pro Plus 5HM.
With all of these extinguishers, a top-mounted lever is pushed down toward a hand grip. The hand grips of three of the units tested—the Fireboy, the Sea-Fire and the Kidde Halotron—have contours molded into them for a better grip. These extinguishers also have aluminum or stainless steel levers and handles, while the Kidde Spray Foam and Kidde Chemical's are made of plastic.
The clean-agent extinguishers from Kidde and Sea-Fire can be re-charged (see the chart above for pricing), but Fireboy has no recharging program in place. "From our experience, it's more cost-effective for the customer to replace it with a new unit, considering the refilling cost, shipping cost, and downtime," said Fireboy marketing coordinator Brett Heitz. "Also, any warranty would be voided if it were refilled by another party, as the label suggests."
The warranty for the Kidde Pro Plus 5HM is voided if it is recharged, while the Sea-Fire's will be valid if the manufacturer recharges it.
Extinguishing times and total discharge times that appear in the chart are the averages of the two tests for each model. The "Time to Extinguish" numbers in the chart should be taken with grain of salt, because there were too many testing variables involved to record exact times. The biggest variable was the wind, which gusted up to roughly 20 mph during testing.
Clean Is Good
The clean-agent extinguishers worked very well. They seemed to surround the fire and smother it. Testers preferred the halotron extinguishers from Fireboy and Kidde because they dispersed wider sprays than the Sea-Fire. Still, there were no discernible differences in effectiveness among the three. One tester, Fire Marshall Jack Stevenson, did say that the Sea-Fire C50 was "real close to being out of punch before the fire was out." The discharge times for both the Kidde Pro Plus 5HM and Fireboy Halotron were two seconds longer than the Sea-Fire. The Kidde Chemical and Kidde Spray Foam were also effective, but they did not envelop the fire like the clean-agent extinguishers. Testers had to "move in on the fire" to extinguish it.
Stevenson pointed out that the clean-agent units will not stop re-ignition. "Whatever causes the fire—like a fuel pump leak—will still be there," said Stevenson, a sailboat owner himself. The drawback of the foam unit is that it cannot envelope the fire like the halotron units or the Sea-Fire extinguisher. And, the foam and chemical units are messier and can damage sophisticated equipment.
The clean-agent extinguishers won't damage computers, engines, or electrical panels, but they can form toxic by-products when applied to a fire. Each clean-agent extinguisher warns the user not to discharge the product in confined spaces. The Sea-Fire should not be used in spaces less than 150 cubic feet; the Kidde and Fireboy halotrons should not be used in spaces less than 700 cubic feet.
Ideally, you'd want three fire-extinguishing alternatives on your boat. We'd love to have a permanently mounted, clean-agent automatic system in the engine area and a portable clean-agent at the helm, close to our electronics and other sophisticated equipment. Among those, we prefer the one-handed operation of the Kidde Pro Plus 5HM and the Fireboy. Both are equally effective, but we'd go with the Kidde simply because it's less expensive.
The Sea-Fire can be used safely in smaller confined spaces, so we'd opt for this model if we had a boat with particularly small enclosed areas.
The Kidde Spray Foam is still a must-have for boaters, in our opinion. It worked well in our tests, and had the longest discharge time of any in the group. It's cheaper than the clean-agent extinguishers, and its ability to stop re-ignition cannot be overlooked. But, as we said, it's not Coast Guard approved, so you'll have to stock up on the required number of CG-approved units.
Also With This Article
"Value Guide: Fire Extinguishers"