The ventilation hygiene industry is playing an increasingly important role in the battle to reduce fire risks in buildings

Thursday, August 11, 2016 10:03 AM

The ventilation hygiene industry is playing an increasingly important role in the battle to reduce fire risks in buildings, says Tim Rook*. 


London Fire Brigade recently reported the outbreak of, at least, one fire every day in a commercial kitchen in the capital. They also confirmed that 90% of fires in catering premises are intensified by ignition of deposits inside grease extract ductwork.


It is not surprising; therefore, that grease extract duct cleaning is the fastest growing area of the ventilation hygiene industry.  However, while standards are improving, there continues to be a large number of commercial kitchen fires exacerbated and spread even into neighbouring buildings by poorly maintained and cleaned ventilation ductwork.


The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order (RRO), which came into force in 2006, stipulates that a ‘responsible person’ must ensure all components of the fire safety system in a building are kept in “efficient working order” and “good repair”.   They must carry out a fire safety risk assessment and then put a planned maintenance regime in place.


Failure to meet the requirements of the RRO can lead to fines of up to £10,000 and two years in prison for the designated responsible person. Prohibition notices can close a business down if the local fire officer is not satisfied that the right measures, including regular testing and maintenance of all system parts, are in place.


That seems clear enough, but in a large percentage of cases the ventilation system is ignored because the designated fire risk assessor does not recognise it as part of the fire safety system.

They are more familiar with more obvious items like sprinkler systems, fire escapes and extinguishers, but grease from cooking processes that coats the inside of ductwork very quickly becomes a highly efficient medium for transmitting fire throughout a building.


Often a fire will start inside the ductwork simply because the temperature becomes high enough to ignite the grease. However, many UK insurance providers now put conditions and warranties in their policies that can lead to claims being rejected on the grounds that the building operator has failed to maintain the ventilation effectively – or, simply, can’t prove that they have maintenance strategies in place.


The ventilation hygiene industry’s primary source of guidance is TR/19 – a Guide to Good Practice; ‘Internal Cleanliness of Ventilation Systems’, which is published by the Building Engineering Services Association (BESA). This was revised in 2013, but it is clearly time to turn this vital guidance into a ‘dynamic’ online document that can be regularly revised and updated to reflect changing technical developments and legislation.


Since it first appeared in 1998, TR/19 has been widely accepted within the building engineering services sector and by the UK insurance industry as the standard to which ventilation systems should be cleaned. The guiding principle of TR/19 is that a defined, measurable level of cleanliness should be achieved to improve safety and comfort in buildings.


The latest version provides clarity about when and to what standard grease extract systems should be cleaned, and provides a detailed explanation of the frequency of cleaning required based on the type of cooking and the hours of kitchen usage. However, there are now many companies operating in the sector that only carry out partial cleaning, but still claim they are complying with TR/19.


The biggest issue for many ventilation hygiene companies is difficulty of gaining access to the ductwork for cleaning. However, it is not acceptable, to say that a system was not fully cleaned because it was difficult to gain access. If access panels are required they should be fitted by the cleaning contractor.


Of course, the very nature of ventilation ductwork means that it is often impossible to access certain parts of the system – if they are hidden behind walls, for example. However, this must be clearly stated and explained on post-clean reports. And, in general, most access issues can be solved by fitting panels, which is something most reputable firms do.


The importance of this aspect of the process was illustrated by a recent case in Nottinghamshire, where a cleaning contractor’s insurers were forced to make a payment of close to £1million to a hotel following a fire damage claim. The nub of the issue was that the contractor had relied on reporting that ‘all accessible areas were cleaned’ rather than actively pointing out those that were not accessible.


The problem is that the booming grease extract market has attracted some of the ‘wrong’ kind of cleaners who really don’t understand ductwork; their responsibilities; or the importance of delivering clean systems, good advice and proper post clean reporting. They pander to the ‘tick box’ mentality that drives a lot of building maintenance decisions, but are simply dangerous in the context of fire safety.


We hear of many quotes for full system cleans that are priced so low that they simply cannot be carried out properly – in fact, the chances are they are not carried out at all and the end user is simply getting a superficial clean of a kitchen canopy and any other visible parts of the system.


While they might have been presented with a nice certificate that suggests their system has been cleaned, in reality they are being lulled into a false sense of security as grease continues to build up inside their ductwork.


In a bid to get on top of this crucial issue, the BESA will be establishing a certification scheme for the sector backed up by expert training to help raise levels of professionalism across the industry.


The scheme will be voluntary to start with, but may eventually become a mandatory system backed by government regulation as part of the fire safety regime. Most bona fide ventilation hygiene providers will want to sign up voluntarily as it gives them an opportunity to promote their professionalism and stand out from the crowd. BESA members have already put their weight and expertise behind the scheme.


The plan is for both companies and individuals to be certified. On completing the training, a ventilation hygiene operative will be issued with a SKILLcard – in conjunction with the CSCS scheme used on construction sites and, specifically, the Engineering Services SKILLcard scheme operated by the BESA. The certification standards and training will be based on TR/19 and both operatives and their employers will have to show understanding and ability to fully comply with the standard.


In parallel, we will be producing a series of technical bulletins and reports covering different aspects of ventilation hygiene and associated fire risks. We will invite BESA members and experts from the wider industry to comment and provide revisions with the aim that these additions will be used for the next revision of TR/19 – in its new dynamic format. Our guidance will, therefore, be online and under constant review to ensure we reflect changing practices and technologies.


It is not possible to understate the importance of this approach. We must have the most up-to-date knowledge in this area and have a way of ensuring companies adhere to best practice because there is nothing more fundamental to our industry than saving lives and protecting property.


*Tim Rook is technical director of the Building Engineering Services Association (BESA).

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