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Chemical reaction: for more than 60 years, Class 3 oxidizers were a mainstay in the pool industry, even though they fueled dozens of chemical fires. A recent trend sees manufacturers offering safer alternatives. What happened, and why now?

Brian Quint will soon be able to rest easy. The president of Aqua Quip Pool & Spa has played hardball with his local fire department for the past decade over the proper storage of pool chemicals in his 7,500-square-foot warehouse in Seattle.

But this autumn, Quint unveils a $3 million, 30,000-square-foot facility that will house the company's administrative offices and pool chemicals. Roughly $250,000 is being directed to developing a state-of-the-art hazardous materials storage area that he hopes will finally quell the concerns of the Seattle Fire Department.

One of the chemicals stored by his company is calcium hypochlorite. Considered extremely dangerous due to its ability to increase the intensity of a fire, this Class 3 oxidizer creates a substantial risk to firefighters and surrounding businesses.

"I'm going to stock virtually negligible Class 3, less than 2,000 pounds at any given time," says Quint, whose company is a Pool & Spa News Top Builder. "Storage of Class 3 is difficult, which is why you see the industry bending over backward to get away from [it]."

Quint is referring to a recent trend among manufacturers to reduce and, in some cases, eliminate Class 3 products. For example, BioLab Inc., a manufacturer and packager of pool chemicals, experienced a large warehouse fire one year ago this month. Though no exact cause has been determined, a National Fire Protection Association investigation into the accident stated that Class 3 chemicals intensified the burn.

The BioLab fire emitted a chemical cloud that hovered for days, shutting down highways and hospitalizing nearly 30 people. By the end of 2004, BioLab had announced its complete withdrawal from Class 3 chemicals. The firm says the decision was a long time in coming, but industry insiders seem to think the fire quickened the Lawrenceville, Ga.-based manufacturer's action.

The industry now leans toward a "safer is better" policy regarding Class 3 chemicals. Less hazardous blended products are growing in availability and popularity, spurred by a deluge of factors--from media attention and terrorism to fires and death. Still, a faction of the industry is holding out, claiming Class 3 chemicals have superior sanitizing qualities and don't cause problems if handled properly. The net result is an industry on the cusp of change and a multimillion-dollar business in the balance.

A potential hazard

In the past five years, there have been four major incidents involving Class 3 oxidizers, says NFPA. But the organization only tracks large, multimillion-dollar-loss fires. Dozens of small accidents, such as chlorinator fires and minor chemical spills, often are not reported.

NFPA categorizes oxidizers in four classes. Class 3 chemicals, the highest available in the pool and spa industry, cause a "severe increase" in burn rates. Sanitizers such as cal hypo are among some of the most dangerous Class 3 chemicals, which is why its storage historically has been a problem for retailers such as Quint. Cal hypo won't spontaneously burst into flames; it simply intensifies fires, making them more violent.

The chemical also causes corrosion and releases toxic fumes when contaminated by organic compounds such as soda or petroleum--basically, anything but water. "It can decompose at higher temperatures such as those in a truck transport that's not well-ventilated," says Carl Rivkin, senior chemical engineer at the Quincy, Mass.-based NFPA.

Patented in 1799 as a "bleaching powder," cal hypo provides 65 to 70 percent available chlorine. By the 1940s, the chemical revolutionized swimming pool sanitation with its effective disinfecting qualities. Then, in the 1960s, the invention of the chlorinated isos, dichlor and trichlor, slowly took market share from cal hypo.

Trichlor, a Class 2 chemical, and dichlor, some forms of which are Class 3 oxidizers, are not as potent as cal hypo. These chlorinated isos generate a lot of chlorine gas in fires, but they don't fuel them as quickly. Despite the benefits of these safer chemicals, cal hypo has still prospered, its effectiveness as a shock treatment for pools, especially in its 1-pound bag form, made it a popular chemical in much of the Sunbelt. In Texas, it is still the primary sanitizer used.

Disaster strikes

In the 1990s and early 2000s, several tragic fires and incidents made national headlines, and NFPA codes came under scrutiny.

In 2002, for instance, a passenger vehicle in Oregon erupted into flames, killing two children trapped in the back seat and seriously injuring the remaining three family members in the car. The Oregon state fire marshal's office said a half-full box of cal hypo pool shock and a petroleum-based engine cleaner "in close proximity combined to ignite and cause a rapidly spreading fire."

Following the incident, an arm of NFPA conducted studies indicating that cal hypo was more dangerous than previously thought. Simultaneously, an increase in fires aboard cargo ships led the International Maritime Organization to issue an ordinance in 2000 requiring stricter transportation guidelines for cal hypo. The National Association of State Fire Marshals then independently reviewed the NFPA requirements and codes, assessing that they were subjective and often inadequate.

The culmination of these events spurred NFPA to make its guidelines for storing Class 3 oxidizers more stringent. The terrorist acts of 9/11 further aggravated the situation. Oxidizers quickly shot to the top of the Department of Homeland Security's list of potential chemical weapons.

But despite these problems, there was no change among Class 3 chemical manufacturers. It was the big-box stores that eventually forced some action.

In the '90s, mass retailers such as The Home Depot experienced large-loss fires, which convinced a number of them to start reducing the amount of Class 3 chemicals in their stores. Then in August 2000, pool chemicals ignited in a Phoenix garden supply center, causing $100 million in damage and shutting down a 10-mile radius of the city, which included the airport. After the incident, nearly every mass merchant pulled Class 3 pool chemicals from its shelves.

Faced with losing their largest customers to alternative sanitizers, some manufacturers of cal hypo began to invest heavily in researching a blended version of the oxidizer. "Cal hypo is a well-structured, well-balanced chemical," says Randy Hitchens, vice president of Arch's HTH Water Products business. The Smyrna, Ga.-based company has more than 100 million pounds of cal hypo manufacturing capacity in the United States.

"In the past, everyone had accepted that cal hypo was a Class 3, and there just wasn't a lot of research and development conducted to lower that class," Hitchens adds. "The consumer had always embraced cal hypo. But the rules are strict."

Leading the charge

Indeed, the withdrawal of the big-box titans demanded innovation. The strong objections to storing Class 3 oxidizers forced chemical manufacturers to modify the full-strength cal hypo. They ended up reducing the amount of its available chlorine and, in turn, the chemicals' classification.

"Our HTH line, which is sold through the mass market, has been Class 1 for the last three years," says Hitchens, who believes Class 3 chemicals will eventually be obsolete in the pool industry. "We started this process about four years ago. In our dealer market, we have introduced the Class 1 cal hypo, and that market is moving more slowly.

"I'd like to see our offerings all in Class 1 within the next three years," he adds.

For BioLab, the research has been ongoing for years as well. "One of the benefits we were looking at was that it would have better, safer storage and handling, and that it would dissolve faster," Charlie Schobel, president of BioLab's Worldwide Recreational Water. "Our belief is that there's no reason today, with the technology that's out there, that you have to store Class 3 oxidizers in retail locations."

Even so, some industry executives wonder if the real motivation to leave Class 3 involves financial considerations. "I think there is a legitimate safety concern, but for some companies, it's been self-serving," says John Murphy, vice president of sourcing and systems for Covington, La.-based SCP Pool Corp. As the industry's largest supplier, SCP sells $20 million in Class 3 chemicals to dealers, but often is required to work closely with local fire departments and invest heavily in its new warehouses.

"Class 3 cal hypo has long been considered a commodity and not very profitable ... whereas newer technologies have been more profitable," Murphy says. "The newer technology has less chlorine at a much higher price. If you take cal hypo out of the marketplace, the pool is going to have to be treated by alternatives."

Regardless of the impetus, the change is here and retailers must adjust to the new products. For the most part, mom-and-pop dealers, which comprise the majority of the pool industry, have kept pace with recommendations from their manufacturers.

"I've got enough things to worry about running my business," says Kelly Reed, retail manager of Contemporary Watercrafters Inc., a Gaithersburg, Md. retailer. "I don't want to have to worry about safe storage and meeting fire regulations.

"Sometimes I did worry and think to myself when I drove to work, 'Is this going to be the day I drive to my company and see it in flames?'" she adds. "Hopefully, now that won't be a problem."

The Class 3 camp

Even with the increased scrutiny, Reed knows that traditionalists in the industry will resist the change. "Even my own staff is worried that [the blends] aren't going to be as strong, as effective," she says.

Other retailers are more concerned about the price factor. "Retail operations are talking about alternatives like bromine or saline solutions," says Kevin Karlstad, retail manager at Robertson Pools & Spas Inc., a Pool & Spa News Top Builder in Coppell, Texas. "I think there are some reservations and hesitations because they are a bit more expensive, and you have to be able to explain that to customers."

Karlstad knows Class 3 chemicals are a storage hazard. Last year, the ventilators at his warehouse broke down and the company lost computer components to corrosion. Still, he will continue to store 18,000 to 20,000 pounds of Class 3 cal hypo for each season despite the fact that his biggest supplier no longer offers the chemical.

Such constraints eventually will drive innovation, but the question is whether or not those alternatives will get the job done. "PPG is committed to the full-strength cal hypo," says Michael Hoops, manager of sales and marketing for the Cal Hypo Group of PPG Industries Inc., a Monroeville, Pa., maker of full-strength cal hypo.

"We maintain our stance that every known instance involving cal hypo has been the result of mishandling, contamination or the presence of excessive heat," he says.

Hoops believes that, if anything, BioLab's strategy to carry cal hypo at a lower class level still extols the benefits of the chemical. "Class 3 cal hypo by itself is not a problem. It's when someone does something wrong with it that there's a problem," he says.

Murphy of SCP is skeptical that PPG will ever change its go-to-market strategy. Consumers demand price and value, and while there are allegations against Class 3 cal hypo, the newer products and alternatives are coming at substantially higher costs.

"I don't want to see it leave the industry," Murphy says. "It's still a good solution for the end consumer."
An explosive past

There have been numerous incidents involving Class 3 chemicals,
mostly calcium hypochlorite, with many minor accidents going
unreported. Below are details about some of the industry's
largest and most damaging accidents over the past decade. The
episodes are rated using a five-star severity scale: One star
indicates an accident with no injuries, while five stars
represents devastating fires that resulted
in death.

DATE         LOCATION                 DETAILS & DAMAGES        SEVERITY

May 2004     BioLab Inc. warehouse,   Fire fueled by Class     **
             Conyers, Ga.             3 chemicals causes
                                      chemical cloud and
                                      five-mile evacuation
                                      radius. More than
                                      25 people are

June 2002    Interstate highway,      Car with family          *****
             Sheridan, Ore.           of five catches
                                      fire after
                                      between engine cleaner
                                      and cal hypo. Two
                                      children die and
                                      others are injured.

July 2001    Namco Pool and Patio     Chemical fire and        **
             Distribution Center,     several explosions are
             Manchester, Conn.        fueled by cal hypo,
             (shown)                  causing two injuries
                                      and loss of storage

Feb 2001     Swimming Pool Center,    Fire and several         ****
             Andover, Mass.           explosions are fueled
                                      by 10,000 pounds of
                                      cal hypo, destroying
                                      three businesses,
                                      evacuating 30 homes
                                      and injuring two

Aug 2000     Central Garden and       Fire is fueled by pool   ****
             Pet Supply/Cardinal      chemicals, causing
             Distribution, Phoenix    $100 million in
                                      damages. Five
                                      firefighters are
                                      injured and 80 homes

Aug 1999     Distribution center,     Fire ignites when 400    ****
             Burlington, N.J.         pounds of cal hypo are
                                      spilled, causing steel
                                      shelves to corrode.
                                      It hospitalizes five
                                      workers and injures
                                      24 others.

July 1999    Apartment complex,       Pool chemicals explode   **
             Richmond, Va.            when released into
                                      apartment pool,
                                      injuring one employee.

Feb 1999     Chemical warehouse,      Fire, smoke and          *
             Fort Worth, Texas        explosions near pool
                                      chemicals completely
                                      destroys warehouse.

July 1998    Community pool,          Pool chemicals           **
             Dayton, Ohio             mix, generating a
                                      toxic cloud and
                                      hospitalizing nine

July 1996    Pool facility,           Fire and toxic vapor     **
             Chatsworth, Calif.       from spilled cal hypo
                                      injure three people.

April 1996   Lowe's, Albany, Ga.      Fire begins near pool    ****
                                      chemicals. The store
                                      completely burns down,
                                      causing $9 million in
                                      damages and some

May 1995     The Home Depot,          Pool chemicals come      ***
             Quincy, Mass.            into contact with
                                      petroleum products,
                                      but fire is contained.
                                      It causes $1 million
                                      in damage and product

RELATED ARTICLE: What is an oxidizer?

It is any material that readily yields oxygen or other oxidizing gas. Most oxidizers react to promote or initiate the combustion of flammable materials. They can undergo a vigorous, self-sustained decomposition due to contamination or heat exposure.

* Class 1: An oxidizer that does not moderately increase the burning rate of combustible materials with which it comes into contact [some dichlors].

* Class 2: An oxidizer that causes a moderate increase in the burning rate of combustible materials with which it comes into contact [trichlor].

* Class 3: An oxidizer that causes a severe increase in the burning rate of combustible materials with which it comes contact [cal hypo, dichlor].

* Class 4: An oxidizer that can undergo an explosive reaction due to contamination or exposure to thermal or physical shock, and causes a severe increase in the burning rate of combustible materials with which it comes into contact.

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Article Details
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Author:Mogharabi, Shabnam
Publication:Pool & Spa News
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 23, 2005
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