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Fire is one of the major threats to the contents of gun safe, including firearms and ammunitions. While the risk of a house fire can vary considerably from one place to another, depending on various factors such as location, building materials and heating system age and condition, it’s a fact that it can cause a great amount of damage very quickly. That is why it is better to be safe than sorry, as the old saying goes.
When you hit the market, you will find an overwhelming number of gun safes labeled as fireproof, but the reality is that they are not created equal, even if they come with a clearly stated rating. How can you make the best decision as a buyer then? Your best bet is to get understanding of fire ratings, who gives them and how and what construction and materials the fireproof models have. Here are the most important things which you should know when you go shopping.
What Fire Ratings Mean
Buyers who don’t have good knowledge of the rating systems can be glad that the gun safe which they are considering has a rating at all. To get an idea of how reliable this protection is, you must know what the numbers mean. To explain the ratings, we will use the example of UL 72 – the main standard applicable to the fire resistance of tests. On the label of a safe, you can find a rating that goes like this: UL 350 Class – 2 HR. The first number is the temperature which should not be exceeded inside the safe in case of fire, while the second one shows how long this can last. In this particular case, the temperature can stay at 350 degrees F for 2 hours.
One thing which you need to understand clearly is that this temperature is not of the walls or the fire itself. In fact, to get this rating, a model is exposed to a temperature of 1850 degrees F. We’ll describe the testing procedure in a bit. Another key thing to keep in mind is that the temperature of 350 degrees F is not random. This is the temperature at which paper burns. Given this, the rating becomes a lot more meaningful for a “layman”. The safe which has it can protect paper items – most notably documents – from being destroyed for 2 hours.
To give you an even better idea of Underwriters Laboratories (UL) ratings which are among the most widely used, you should know that there are two other classes in the UL 72 standard. These are as follows:
Class 150 – The safes which receive ratings based on this class can keep the temperature inside the safe below 150 degrees F for a specified amount of time. This is the temperature at which items such as computer disks and photos can be destroyed.
Class 125 – A safe with this rating can keep the temperature lower than 125 degrees F to protect flexible computer disks.
The different safes in either class have a fixed number of hours which they can protect the items inside for: 0.5, 1, 2, 3 and 4. Naturally, the longer the time, the better; but you may also want to look into the average time it takes firefighters to reach you and to put out the fire, especially if you do not have a lot of money to spend on a fireproof gun safe.
Who Gives Gun Safes Fire Ratings?
The manufacturers specialising in making fireproof gun safes have their models tested by independent laboratories. These include not only Underwriters Laboratories but also Intertek ETL, for example. Since there are no federal or state standards for the fire resistance of safes, the tests which the different labs use to produce their ratings vary. For this reason, it is wise not to compare them when you go shopping. Does this mean that some independent laboratory ratings are less trustworthy than others? Not necessarily; your best bet is to look at the test procedures carried out by each lab to get an idea of how they compare.
There are also brands that give their own ratings to their fireproof gun safes. While these may hold some validity – especially if they compare previous models to the latest ones – they are not as reliable as the ones produced by independent laboratories. This does not necessarily mean that the brands in question make up the ratings that they place on their products, however. Most often, their tests are not as effective and accurate as those of the labs. Let’s see how they compare.
Established vs. Altered Safe Testing
There are four types of tests as part of the UL 72 standard. The primary one is the fire endurance test followed by the fire and impact test, explosion hazard test and combined explosion and impact test. Manufacturers select which tests their gun safes will undergo. The models designed for home use usually undergo only the first test and sometimes the second one too. Here we’ll explore the fire endurance test in greater detail to help you get an idea of how trustworthy the UL ratings are.
The preparation of the safe for testing includes placing paper for the class 350 rating and other media such as computer disks for the other class ratings. Then thermocouples are attached to the walls, door and top and bottom of the safe to measure the temperature inside the item accurately.
The next step involves placing the gun safe inside an oven where it is exposed to the same temperature that it would be subjected to in case of a house fire. It is worth describing the conditions in greater detail. The average house fire temperature is 1200 degrees F and it is reached in less than ten minutes. It can reach up to 1850 degrees F within two hours. Generally, the higher the temperatures, the lower the rate of its increase will be.
After the safe’s exposure to the highest temperature, the oven is switched off and the item is left inside for a period of 68 hours. After this, the safe is opened and the condition of its contents and structure is examined. If it meets the set criteria and the temperature inside the safe never reached the top limit set for the respective class of the UL 72 standard, the model is given the rating that is the seal of approval.
As explained earlier, the tests of other independent laboratories may differ, but this doesn’t necessarily make them less reliable. The only way to tell is to look closely at the procedure. Another thing which you have to keep in mind is that manufacturers that test their products themselves are more likely to conduct less trustworthy tests.
There are different ways in which the fire endurance test described above or a similar one can be altered to produce better results. The most common technique is to place fewer thermocouples. In fact, the biggest boost in the results is achieved when there is a single thermocouple placed at the bottom of the safe which is typically the section with the lowest temperature in case of a house fire.
Another trick for altering the results of the fire resistance test in a positive way is to increase the temperature in the oven more slowly than it would happen in a fire. Instead of the temperature of 1200 degrees F being reached within ten minutes, it is reached over a longer stretch of time. There are many more ways in which the results can be improved by making the test less effective and reliable, but these two examples are sufficient to illustrate the point.
Marketing Tricks to Watch Out for
The devil is in the details – this is exactly the case with the fire ratings of gun safes. The Underwriters Laboratories standard for fire resistance is UL 72, as you already know. However, there are brands exploiting the fact that some buyers are not well aware of it or are distracted because of the many features, specs and ratings that they have to check and state UL rating of the fire insulation. Basically, this is the fire rating which the insulating material used for making the safe has achieved. Usually, you will see the rating of gypsum board, as it is the most commonly used insulation in gun safes for home use.
As you can guess, the insulation’s fire rating is far from indicative of the product’s fire resistance properties. This is because insulation is not the only factor that plays a role. Let’s take a look at all structural materials and features which make a safe effective for protecting the contents from fire damage.
Fireproof Gun Safe Insulation and Construction
Given that the fire ratings of gun safes produced by different laboratories, independent and manufacturer-owned ones, are not based on the exact same testing methods and that some of them could be misleading, you will benefit from learning how the different insulating materials and construction techniques can affect a model’s resistance to fire. This will help you immensely when you go shopping.
The most basic type of insulating material used is gypsum board. The material itself has a high level of fire resistance. This is because it contains moisture inside. When heated like in the case of a house fire, it expands and gives off this moisture helping keep the interior of the safe sealed and as cool as possible. What’s the problem with it then? Gypsum gets dry and begins to crumble very quickly. As it falls apart, it leaves the sides of the safe fully exposed to the heat. Manufacturers are trying to solve this problem with various solutions. The gypsum board can be reinforced with fiberglass which has a higher fire rating or be set in a grid which prevents it from crumbling and travelling to the bottom of the safe.
Ceramic wool fiber is considered to be a better insulating material compared to gypsum board. This is surely an advantage, but as a savvy gun safe buyer, you should also check how thick the insulation is. The greater its thickness, the better protection the contents of the safe will get.
The best type of insulation is concrete amalgamate. It is made of cement, crushed stone and compounds like fiberglass, vermiculite or perlite plus water. The mixture is poured between the two steel sheets forming the sides of the safe. It is interesting to note that concrete amalgamate works in virtually the same as gypsum drywall to protect the items inside the safe. The key difference is that it can do it more effectively for much longer. You can expect all sides to receive equally good protection within the time specified in the awarded fire rating. Besides, this type of insulation increases the level of security of the safe as it makes it more difficult for thieves to access the contents by damaging the walls.
There is more to gun safe fire resistance than the insulation, even though it plays a key part. As explained earlier, the insulating material releases moisture to help keep the contents of the safe intact. Since it can be equally damaging, however, manufacturers install a steel inner liner which is practically a shell serving as a barrier. It is critical for this shell to have continuous welding to seal the interior of the safe. Otherwise, not only moisture but also heat could get inside through miniature holes.
Another key feature for fire resistance is the door’s seal. Ideally, it will expand due to the heat produced by the house fire to keep the interior cooler and to minimize the chance of smoke getting inside.
How to Go About Choosing a Fireproof Gun Safe?
The first step should be to limit your shopping search only to models of brands with solid reputation in the industry. When it comes to fire ratings, you should shortlist the models that have been rated by independent labs, preferably Underwriters Laboratories. Go beyond looking at the ratings and find out more about the insulation and construction of the safes to be confident when making a purchase decision.