Reflective Radiant Barriers - 2010

Civil & Structural Engineering

In recent decades much of the world (and especially the U.S.) has become very conscious of energy consumption. As a result, many energy saving initiatives and products have been introduced. One of the most successful lines of products has been the reflective radiant barrier materials which are installed in the attic spaces of homes. Available evidence strongly suggests that these products can in fact provide significant reductions in home energy consumption (U.S. Department of Energy, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, et al.). Unfortunately, the use of these products also provides some insidious and unintended side effects. The physical and electrical properties of these materials are such that they introduce new and very serious dangers of ignition and fire.

In an earlier report published in Fire Findings (2009) we discussed results from testing performed on certain reflective radiant barrier laminated sheet material, which is purchased in rolls. This is the material commonly installed on attic floors (above the insulation) to provide an effective thermally reflective barrier above the ceiling of a building. That testing demonstrated conclusively that, if electrically energized by incidental contact with a powered conductor in a standard branch circuit, this material would "arc and spark" rather violently and would frequently catch fire and sustain flame (Simmons, et al.). Clearly, this could ignite other nearby more flammable materials, and thus initiate a major structure fire.