Years of competing in fire fighting foam markets as fluorine unfriendly as Europe and parts of Asia gives the Wisconsin-based Solberg Company, formerly of Norway, a big advantage as it maneuvers for a share of the U.S. foam business, said company spokesperson Dave Pelton.
“Our feeling is that, ultimately, as the regulations get tighter overseas, as we’ve seen, there will continue to be pressure on fluorinated based foams here,” he said.
Acquired by Amerex Corporation in 2011, Solberg introduced its latest product to the U.S. market in June – an Underwriters Laboratories listed high performance, fluorosurfactant-free, fluoropolymer-free three percent fire fighting foam. Formulated using a new synthetic foam technology, RE-HEALING™ RF3 is designed to replace traditional AFFF and FFFP foam concentrates and older protein and fluoroprotein foams.
“Today, as you know, the environmental folks get as involved with the fire safety and risk management people when assessing the products needed to protect industrial facilities,” said Pelton, Solberg’s vice president for marketing.
Environmental concerns aside, RE-HEALING takes its name from a unique bubble structure that better serves the primary function of fire fighting foam – isolating fuel vapor from continued ignition.
“Not only does it quickly flow across the fuel surface, but the slow drain time as it breaks down provides for a very stable and long lasting foam blanket,” Pelton said.
Solberg traces its roots back to the late 1960s when it was founded in Norway as a distributor for National Foam and other fire fighting products. Soon after, Solberg progressed to becoming a “tollblender,” producing National Foam concentrate under a licensing agreement for resale in Europe.
In the 1980s, Solberg switched its allegiance from National Foam to 3M, providing that brand for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Then, suddenly, 3M exited the fire foam business in 2000 after environmental concerns arose concerning its unique electro-fluorination process for producing fluorinated surfactants.
“There are a couple of use exemptions specific to the United States,” Pelton said. “As of June this year products using the electro-fluroination process can’t be made or sold in Canada.”
The immediate issue was the byproducts from 3M fluorinated surfactants, not the formulas for the foam. Solberg purchased 3M’s entire line of discontinued fire fighting foams, including its trademarks, and substituted fluorinated surfactants produced by other means.
Solberg also purchased the intellectual property behind the product line, including new formulations in the works.
“3M had been working on its next generation of fire fighting foam products when that decision was made,” Pelton said. “One of the products in that portfolio was fluorine-free foam.”
Solberg became the only foam manufacturer legally permitted to use the 3M trademark term “ATC” for alcohol type concentrate.
“We enforce that trademark,” Pelton said. “Where our friendly competitors have used it in print or on their products we have told them to replace it with the generic term AF-AFFF.”
In 2008, Alabama-based Amerex, a maker of hand extinguishers and fixed fire suppression systems, acquired Janus Fire Systems, a leader in the fire suppression special hazards industry. Amerex’s ambition was to become a full-line manufacturer of fire fighting products, Pelton said.
“Amerex always had the desire to grow but were missing the other two sides of the triangle – engineered systems that detect and control using clean agents and a fire fighting foam products group,” Pelton said.
Building on the Janus acquisition, Amerex approached Solberg about distributing its fluorine free fire fighting foam products in the U.S.
“In return, Solberg approached Amerex about acquiring Solberg,” Pelton said. “That helped jump start Amerex into the foam products business.” It also gave Solberg a well known partner for its entrance into the U.S. market.
Solberg offered five traditional extinguishing agents in the U.S. – a one percent and three percent AFFF, a 1x3 and 3x3 ATC and a Class A foam called FIRE-BREAK. The company also introduced a foam hardware line of proportioning equipment, discharge devices, bladder tanks, atmospheric tanks, foam carts and pump skids.
“The hardware line is something new that we’ve also introduced in the European and Asian market where our name is more established for foam concentrates,” Pelton said.
Last year, Solberg introduced its fluorine free fire fighting foam, RE-HEALING™ RF3, as a six percent UL listed foam, followed by the three percent version this year.
“It is truly a completely 100 percent fluoropolymer-free, fluorosurfactant-free product, versus some of the other alleged fluorine-free products out there,” Pelton said. “They may be fluorosurfactant-free, but not fluoropolymer-free.
The term “re-healing” come from RF3’s ability to seal itself if the foam blanket is disturbed. To qualify under UL 162, the same testing standard as AFFF and AR-AFFF, RF3 was required to not only achieve successful extinguishment but also a level of resistance to re-ignition known as “burn back.”
“Historically, you get ‘ghosting’ or flame flicker across the foam surface,” Pelton said. “The test protocol requires that the fire can’t grow a certain percentage greater than what is stated in the document, otherwise the test is a failure.”
RF3’s ability to seal itself or “re-heal” an open area derives from a unique bubble structure, he said. Large bubbles slowly break down into smaller, more resilient bubbles that continue to suppress vapors.
Vapor suppression can be a preventative measure rather than a fire fighting tool. A significant portion of foam concentrate utilized in an industrial setting is used to protect exposed product in the event of a sunken storage tank roof or a ground spill.
“You’re obviously looking to put down foam to prevent those vapors from finding an ignition source,” Pelton said.
Whether used against a real fire or to prevent one, RF3 offers the same key advantages, he said.
“One advantage is a long drain time,” Pelton said. “Whereas a typical AFFF’s quarter drain time will be about three minutes, maybe five if you’re lucky, with fluorine-free foams we’re seeing drain times of 20 to 30 minutes, even longer.”
RF3 foam concentrate is intended for use on Class B hydrocarbon and polar solvent fires. However, on Class A fuels, RF3 offers improved extinguishment of deep-seated fires. Foam discharge devices such as air aspirating and non air aspirating equipment, including standard sprinkler heads, can be used to obtain maximum results.
The foam concentrate can be mixed on scene or pre-mixed, using fresh, sea or brackish water. RF3 is also compatible with dry powder agents.
Whereas the United States still permits fluorinated agents in fire fighting foams, Solberg has long experience competing where fluorine is banned in such products. The company maintains a dominant market share in such fluorine-free regions of Asia, Australia and New Zealand.
“We recently secured the contract for the New South Wales Fire Brigade in Australia with our fluorine-free foam,” Pelton said. “We also have air services contracts throughout Australia.”
Like most manufacturers, Solberg is looking at where the growth is globally and pursing the business, he said.
“When we look at where oil and gas is growing and where the investments are, we are certainly looking at Indonesia, China and the Middle East,” Pelton said. “While we are certainly a new foam provider here in the Americas, we’re not new to the foam industry.”