Are Aluminium Composite Panels Copping a Bad Rap? 5

Thursday, August 4th, 2016
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While recent high-rise fires both in Australia and abroad have severely dimmed the reputation of aluminium composite panels, the building products can still be used safely as long as consumers remain well apprised of what to look out for.

Ever since an official investigation concluded that aluminium composite panels (ACPs) were a key factor behind the blaze which broke out at the Lacrosse apartment complex in Melbourne’s Docklands district toward the end of 2014, the highly popular building product has become a frequent object of negative attention within the Australian media as well as the country’s property and construction sectors.

Damage to the reputation of ACPs has since been further compounded by the occurrence of similar blazes in high-rise buildings in Dubai, as well as an alert sounded by the Victorian Building Authority calling for members of industry to be aware of the dangers associated with the use of flammable cladding.

According to John Gilbert of Alutile Australia, the adverse media coverage has had a severe impact on the popularity of ACPs, with sales down 50 per cent compared to the same period last year.

Gilbert argues, however, that ACPs remain an excellent and perfectly safe product if consumers remain well apprised of the appropriate standards governing their usage, and that the benefits of the cladding make them essential many forms of modern construction.

“Aluminium composite panels are a wonderful product, and this is evident from the amount of usage around the world. Do they really deserve the bad publicity that they’ve had over the last 18 months?” said Gilbert. “They’ve been in Australia for over three decades, and are the exterior cladding of choice for architects because they have so many advantages – they’re lightweight, waterproof and versatile when it comes to colours and appearance.

“Their low weight makes them easy and cheap to install, and they can be used to transform the exterior of a building completely. In Australia they’re employed on every kind of building conceivable, from law courts, to hospitals to shopping centres.”

Gilbert notes that what makes ACPs flammable isn’t their metal content, but the cores which can be manufactured from a variety of materials.

“Aluminium won’t flame – otherwise you couldn’t recycle it. It turns molten at around 480 degrees depending on the grade, but it doesn’t catch fire,” he said. “What burns is the core, and for this reason combustibility tests are performed with the aluminium skins removed.”

When it comes to determining whether or not ACPs pass muster and are safe for use on high-rise buildings, Gilbert advises that consumers focus on whether or not the product satisfies the non-combustibility standards mandated by the BCA, instead of focusing on CodeMark certification.

“Aluminium cladding should meet the AS-1530-1-1994 test standard – especially if you want cladding on a high-rise buildings,” he said. “This means it’s non combustible, and is the standard required by the VBC and the BCA for buildings above three storeys, or hospitals and public facilities.”

ACPs that do not satisfy this standard can be installed on high-rise buildings, yet require additional measures which increase the installation cost and render the panel a mere external decoration.

“ACP that does not have AS-1530-1-1994 Certification can be installed in conjunction with other fire retardant materials that are deemed non-combustible,” said Gilbert. “You need to get a third engineer and the builders to agree, as well as the agreement of the local authorities to place six millimetres of fibro-cement plus fire-checked plaster behind the panels, which is normally the standard now for multi-storey buildings.

“It’s costly to put a cement sheet behind then the panel, however, and as a result of this process the panel is then classed as purely decorative.”

Gilbert also advises consumers to not discriminate against products solely on the basis of their country of origin, contending that Chinese-made goods have been unfairly tarred with the same brush by the press.

“In most media reports, Chinese-manufactured ACP was singled out as being the major problem in terms of fire performance, which is a pack of lies,” he said. “If you spend the money in China, they can manufacture products as good as any place anywhere else.

“Unfortunately, however, as with all products manufactured in the country, there is marked difference between the high-end goods and low-end shoddy stuff.”

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  1. Vladimir

    You know, we tested decorative steel panels without a core, and they were deemed as flammable according to standards of our country because any panel has paint cover and this is the source which supports a flame. This way, even nonflammable core like «Alpolic» aluminium panel has will be burn anyway. I don’t think that luxury hotel in Dubai was cladding by daggy materials. From own experience, when a fire has started and a wind has blown even the bricks are burning.

  2. Andrew

    Some good points in there, but also some confusion. Compliance with AS1530.1 would permit you to use an ACP as a cladding material. However, only ACPs with non-combustible cores would pass this test. Most ACPs, and certainly the ones involved in the recent dramatic fires, have combustible cores (e.g. PE, PU, EPS).

    Taking one of these combustible core ACPs and installing a fire rated layer of fibro cement and plasterboard would not necessarily satisfy code compliance. BCA Specification C1.1 permits ACP attachments to external walls but only if they do not contribute to "undue fire spread". Recent fires, along with full scale tests indicate that combustible core ACPs most certainly do contribute to fire spread, and in spectacular fashion.

    The Building Code struggles to keep up with modern construction techniques. The CodeMark scheme was developed to address this, but the credibility of this scheme has been seriously degraded by a number of dodgy practitioners issuing dodgy certificates.

    The only viable solution for the use of combustible ACPs on a building is to engage with a fire engineer. On high rise buildings in particular, facade systems will need to have been tested to an internationally recognised, full scale, test standard such as NFPA 285 or BS8414. Standards Australia has recently released AS5113 which would also be considered relevant.

    Small scale tests such as AS1530.3 are absolutely not applicable and anyone trying to sell an ACP off the back of a small scale test is doing themselves and their industry a dis-service. I would suggest that the reason ACP sales have dropped by 50% is largely because the industry has let itself down, not because of unfair reporting in the media.

  3. Peter Pike

    To gloss over the fact we have many of our multi storey buildings covered in flammable cladding waiting for an ignition source is beyond belief. The break down of certification of compliant building safe products maybe a break down in Australian regulatory compliance but at the end of the day root cause is the same country sending us shody cable & cladding. Maybe manage your own ACP manufacturing industry & stop blaming others for your demise. Once again profits above safety.

  4. Travis

    It is all about the core's combustibility, but what is not discussed is that most ACP manufacturers have a number of cores ranging from very poor performing in fire (and cheap), through to very well performing (and more expensive). It is not simply a matter of adding in '6mm of non-combustible sheeting' – it is up to a qualified fire engineer in combination with the façade designer / engineer to present an appropriate performance based solution to the local fire authorities and the building surveyor / certifier for their approval. There are currently a lot of fire engineers not doing adequate assessment of ACP's in their performance based assessments and / or not understanding enough about the materials. The best solution (in my opinion) is to recommend an ACP with a sound performing core that has been subject to international full scale fire testing methodologies (such as BS8414); which is a robust test, and which is now called up in the new Australian Test AS5113 (albeit it is unknown when this will be called up by the NCC / BCA). The media need to be better informed about how they are talking about such materials and the public perception of such materials also. However, yes, I would agree that significant investigation and auditing into the types of ACP's and façade detailing in the middle east is subjected to scrutiny (instead of cover-ups).

  5. Philip Morey

    The difficulty lies in determining which of the goods coming into the country do comply with AS1530, particularly when some companies will try to scam the system by supplying 'Test Grade' material for testing at the fire test labs which they know will pass then supply an inferior grade for construction. Until we can be certain of ALL the materials that go into a building then none of it should be imported