FR change proposed
Heath E. Combs -- Furniture Today, February 18, 2013
SACRAMENTO, Calif. - Many upholstery suppliers may already be meeting the new flammability standard recently proposed by the California Bureau of Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation.
Proposed changes to the state's Technical Bulletin 117, announced on Feb. 8, shifts the emphasis from using a small flame to test foam used in cushioning, to using a smolder test - a lit cigarette - to test the seat's covering.
The new rule is based on ASTM E-1353-08a, which is based on the Upholstered Furniture Action Council standard.
It should pave the way to a chemical-free FR approach. The ASTM standard doesn't require the use of flame retardants and relies on engineering of fabrics to pass the smolder test, said Andy Counts, CEO of the American Home Furnishings Alliance.
The UFAC standard has been around since the late 1970s and much of the furniture industry complies with it, Counts said.
Upholstery suppliers will still need to go through the California bureau's certification process to make sure items pass, but no big cost impacts are expected, he said.
"On the fabric side they're used to doing the test for UFAC/ASTM. It should be a fairly smooth transition," he said.
The bureau also has indicated that if the new test is adopted, retailers will have an unlimited time to work through inventory purchased under the current standard, Counts said.
California Gov. Jerry Brown directed the bureau last year to create a regulation to reduce or eliminate the FR chemicals in furniture while still maintaining fire safety. There are concerns that such chemicals could be toxic.
The bureau said the proposed new rule would address "the predominant source of upholstered furniture fire deaths, which are smoldering materials."
There will be a six-week comment period before the proposal can be adopted by the California agency. A hearing is set for March 26. Depending on how quickly a rule is finalized, it could take effect by July 1, 2014.
"It's a move in the right direction. I think it takes care of some concerns - some health concerns - that we're really not 100% sure of. I think is better than to be on the other side," said Ben Nielsen, president of upholstery supplier Cambridge of California.
The proposed TB-117 smolder test would be performed on mockups of cushions. It would test cover fabrics, barrier materials and resilient filling materials such as foam. Upholstery utilizing a failing cover fabric or filling material will need a barrier material.
Many manufacturers are likely to treat all their fabrics as failing and use a barrier to just to make sure they're in compliance, rather than worry about failing a test, Counts said. For fabrics more prone to smoldering, a barrier will be required - typically a highly resilient polyester batting, which is already used by 70% to 80% of the industry, he said.
The proposed rule shouldn't negatively impact on comfort, he added.
The new rule applies only to California, but may become a de facto national standard for manufacturers who don't want to create separate inventories for California and the rest of the nation.
There are still concerns. Cambridge's Nielsen said the new rule is likely to affect cotton print fabrics, which would need a barrier cloth that covers the sofa cushion before having a decorative cover placed on the outside. This double upholstering could add up to $300 in costs to those sofas, he said.
While the former rule focused on foam, it did have a smolder element. Nielsen said much of the industry's fabric supply will already pass the new smolder test, although he does worry about overseas fabric suppliers.
"Seventy to 80% of my fabrics come from imports today. And I'm worried about a mill in China certifying that it meets the standard and find out later that it doesn't," he said.
Liability for failing fabric should fall on importers of record - instead of overseas fabric suppliers with no incentive to pay fines, he said. The bureau enforces the rule by obtaining product at retail, testing it, and levying fines if it fails.
"Whoever imports the goods into the United States, it should be levied against them. Not against the Chinese company where you can't collect it," Nielsen said.
Another concern is that the state's powerful chemical lobby will wage a public relations battle, or engage in delaying tactics that keep the current rule in effect, he said. News reports have indicated that chemical interests spent $23 million killing bills in recent years that would have more closely regulated flame retardants.
The AHFA's Counts said he doesn't expect to see a big push from upholstery manufacturers to tout that their products will no longer contain flame retardant chemicals.
"For that particular consumer that's concerned about it, this may be something that they pay close attention to," he said. "Because then you have to explain to your other customers who bought why it contains some kind of chemical and the other one doesn't."