The Fire Protection Industry, and specifically those of us that focus on special hazard and clean extinguishing agent fire protection systems, was shocked by the sudden announcement by 3M on Tuesday, December 20, 2022, that they would be ceasing production of their Novec TM 1230 Fire Suppression Fluid at the end of 2025.
This announcement caught many of us off guard, and immediately prompted many more questions and emotions than it probably should have, but completely understandably so. After all, the industry consensus is that the 3M organization was one of the key lobbyists involved in getting HFC Fire Suppression Agents targeted by the EPA for eventual Phase Down because of their “High” GWP when released to the atmosphere and their atmospheric lifetime of 30+ years, but all the while the manufacturing of Novec TM itself results in the creation of PFAS (aka “Forever chemicals”) that get discharged into the environment and never go away and may even pose a more significant threat than what HFCs do.
After several years of “HFC Slandering” that only contributed to more doubt, confusion, misinformation and the miseducation of the market in general, 3M finally “won,” and as a result of the HFC phase down that began January 1, 2022, their product was literally going to be the last and only choice for any clean agent fire extinguishing system. Yet here, less than a year into their victory tour, they’re withdrawing from the market altogether….so what is the “real” deal?
The “real deal” that we’re coming to learn has been a very fast paced and moving target, and at the same time very enlightening. It turns out there were 60 total products that 3M identified as creating PFAS as byproducts of combustion, and Novec 1230 was 1 of the 60. As an organization 3M was likely not feasibly able to differentiate or justify the market value of keeping any 1, or 5, or 10 of these items, and made the corporate decision to eliminate them all.
The “further details” we may soon come to learn is whether or not the additional steps that 3M took to make their brand of FK-5-1-12 “better” is what actually contributes to the PFAS as a byproduct of its production.
Regardless, 3M certainly spent many years of resources and several hundreds of thousands of dollars successfully marketing their FluoroKetone product, and had placed their FK-5-1-12 molecule at the top of the list of the most desirable fire suppression agents, only to now abandon their own recipe and success, thus leaving the industry to once again abruptly start thinking about “what’s next?”
In the immediate future, even though Novec 1230 may no longer be “preferred” and will not be manufactured post 2025, FK-5-1-12 is expected to be readily available through several other manufacturing channels for many years to come.
Our industry’s biggest challenge is going to be managing the public’s interpretation of this news. Many of our AHJ’s and A&E’s associate FK-5-1-12 with Novec 1230 (like Kleenex with tissues, or Xerox with copier machines), but just because Xerox closed their doors doesn’t mean copying machines ceased to exist. The same would apply if Kleenex suddenly stopped making tissues, and it’s our job to ensure the market understands that FK-5-1-12 will not disappear as well, or perhaps more importantly that the market understands there are other very viable solutions that can be utilized.
Environmental initiatives are nothing new, and whether we know it, or want to acknowledge it or not, the USA has always lagged a few years behind Europe when it comes to environmental policies driving fire protection preferred practices or standards, and the most common fire protection systems for the past several years in Europe have in fact been WATERMIST and INERT GAS.
They evolved to those standard approaches because of environmental initiatives they have always had and strived for that the US has historically pushed back against or been reluctant to adopt. But slowly over time (and presidential administrations) those same environmental initiatives are starting to have more prominence in the US, and we’ll eventually be left with no choice but to adapt and overcome.
It is very unfortunate that we are the ones left to deal with the ramifications of 3M’s recent decision, but if any industry and group of experts know how and have proven to be able to weather these types of storms and overcome these types of challenges, it is ours.
One of my favorite quotes is “Every adversity carries with it a seed of equivalent or greater opportunity” and, while we didn’t necessarily need any more unexpected adversity after everything we’ve dealt with the past few years, we always welcome great opportunities.