Is hand sanitizer a fire risk in buildings?

2020 will go down as a year like no other with the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic affecting every community across the globe. The first line of defence is social distancing, face masks and good hygiene. Many businesses have substantially increased their reserves of hand sanitizer and we have been asked the question, does this place our building at an increased fire risk?
Russ Porteous
CEO, Firewize
Hand Sanitizer 20L Drum

Alcohol-based hand sanitizer ("ALBH") is used when access to soap and water may not be readily available. Hand sanitizer is typically an ethanol or ethyl alcohol solution at 70-80% concentration used to disrupt the protean or cell wall of a disease causing bacteria or virus. The remaining constituents typically include humectants (moisturizers) and/or excipients (stabilizers).

Because hand sanitizer contains an alcohol solution there is some community concern about the performance of the automatic fire sprinkler systems, fire hydrant systems, fire hose reels or fire extinguishers in the event of a fire.

In most cases the volume of alcohol-based hand sanitizer stored and used at various locations within a building is negligible (less than 2 litres) and traditional fire protection is more than adequate.

The question then arises at what volume (if any) does special fire protection requirements arise?

While researching this article I decided to conduct a basic test of the flash point of the hand sanitizer we had readily available in our office.  The process was simple enough, I placed about a teaspoon on the surface of a saucer and placed it in the microwave oven for 5 seconds.  I then removed it from the oven, placed in the bottom of the sink and ignited the heated liquid.  To my surprise, it easily ignited, with a transparent flame with a blue and yellow edge and no smoke.

I repeated the experiment and this time I did not preheat the hand sanitizer, but rather (as you can see in the video) squirted some into a ceramic cup in the bottom of our sink.  The ambient temperature in the building is about 21 degrees.  Again to my surprise the hand sanitizer ignited easily with the same transparent flame with a blue and yellow edge and no smoke.

To control the flame on both occasions, I doused the flame with water from the tap above the sink where the experiment was conducted.

What is a flammable liquid?

Class 3 Flammable Liquid Placard

A flammable liquids is a liquid, or mixtures of liquids, or liquids containing solids in solution or suspension (for example, paints, varnishes, lacquers, etc., but not including substances otherwise classified on account of their dangerous characteristics) which give off a flammable vapour at temperatures of not more than 60°C, closed-cup test, or not more than 65.6°C, open-cup test, normally referred to as the flash point.

For a flammable vapour to ignite, a source of ignition must be present.  This can be in the form of static electricity, open flames and sparks. 

Given that the flash point of hand sanitizer has a flash point of approximately 17°C it is considered to be a hazard Class 3  (Flammable Liquid), and will have a corresponding Class 3 placard to indicate this accordingly.

HAZARD GROUPING BASED ON FLAMMABILITY
Packing Group (PG) Flash Point (closed-cup) Initial boiling point
I - ≤35°C
II <23°C >35°C
III ≥23°C ≤60.5°C >35°C

Based on what we now know, hand-sanitiser with greater than 70% alcohol content by volume is classified as a Dangerous Goods (DG) Class 3 flammable liquid, Packing Group ("PG") II.

Australian Standard AS 1940-2004

The storage and handling of flammable and combustible liquids

The objective of this Standard is to promote the safety of persons and property where flammable or combustible liquids are stored or handled, by providing requirements and recommendations that are based on industry best practices.

According to the Standard (Table 2.1, Minor Storage), the volume (quantity) of Class 3 Packing Group varies according to the storage location, building classification and use.

The following table is an partial extract from Table 2.1, Minor Storage with modifications to align the location with a Building Classification as described in the National Construction Code ("NCC")

Building Class Location Max Storage Volume
Class 1
Domestic or residential buildings.
Within Residence 5 L
In a garage attached to a residence with a 60/60/60 FRL separating wall 25 L
Outdoors, or in a shed or garage, separated from the residence or any other building by 1 m space 100 L
Outdoors, uncovered, or in a shed or garage, separated from the residence or any structure or boundary by either 3 m of space or a wall having an FRL of 180/180/180 250L
Class 5 Commercial buildings (indoors) 10L per 50m2 of floor space, but 5 L for any tenancy of less than 50 m2 area
Class 8 Laboratories 50 L per 50 m2 of floor space, or 50 L in a room of up to 50m2 of floor space
Class 8 Factories, workshops (indoors) 1 L per 2 m2 of floor space with no more than 250L in any 500m2 area
Class 9a Hospitals (indoors) 10 L per 50 m2 of floor space
Class 9b Education, excluding laboratories 5 L per 50 m2 of floor space
Class 5, 8, 9a Commercial buildings, factories, workshops, hospitals and warehouses outside the building —
  1. in attached outhouses or sheds if separated by a partition having an FRL of 60/60/60; or
  2. outside, or in a detached shed or outhouse separated from the factory or workshop by at least 1 m
250 L

Section 2, Minor Storage of Australian Standard AS 1940—2004 provides specific guidance on the Storage of flammable or combustible liquids in quantities not exceeding those listed in Table 2.1.  Section also covers other requirements such as;

  • Clause 2.3.1 — the storage location of minor storage of flammable liquids;
  • Clause 2.3.2 — the handling requirements of minor storage of flammable liquids;
  • Clause 2.3.3 — the control of ignition sources of minor storage of flammable liquids;
  • Clause 2.3.4 — the control of spillage of minor storage of flammable liquids;
  • Clause 2.3.5 — applicable fire protection and warning signs of minor storage of flammable liquids

Fire protection for minor storage of flammable liquids

According to Clause 2.3.5, at building other than residences or farms, in locations where more than 100 L of flammable liquids, or more than 1000 L of combustible liquids are stored, or where flammable liquids are decanted, the following requirements apply:

  1. At least one portable fire extinguisher, having a suitable rating for use with the range of materials being kept, shall be readily accessible and adjacent to the minor storage area. Where liquids are stored on open land, a fire extinguisher shall be provided if the liquids are decanted or transferred within 5 m of the storage.

  2. In areas where flammable liquids are decanted, a sign bearing the words;

    DANGER — FLAMMABLE LIQUIDS — NO SMOKING — KEEP FIRE AWAY

    shall be displayed.

    NOTE: Signs should comply with AS 1319.

    For retail areas with customer access, this requirement shall apply if the liquids are decanted or transferred, or are in packages having capacities of more than 25 L.

Consistent with the limitations of Table 2.1 of AS1940-2004, where a building is fitted with an automatic fire sprinkler system, the automatic fire sprinkler system should be adequate for the risk. Notwithstanding this building owners, agents of owners and facility managers should undertake a review of the storage of flammable liquids, fire protection and encapsulation in the local area should be undertaken.

In addition a portable fire extinguisher of a suitable capacity as described in Australian Standard AS2444:2001 - Portable fire extinguishers and fire blankets, Selection and location should be installed.

For the purposes of this article, for a Flammable Liquid the preferred fire extinguisher is a Class B fire extinguisher which includes, Dry Chemical Powder, Foam and some limited use of Carbon Dioxide fire extinguishers may be used.

Order Portable Fire Extinguishers Online

Dry Chemical Powder AB(E) Fire Extinguisher 2.5Kg
Considered a multi-purpose fire extinguisher, the Dry Chemical Powder fire extinguisher can be purchased for a variety of Fire Classes including B(E), AB(E) and ABC(E) options.
Carbon Dioxide Fire Extinguisher 3.5Kg
Perfect for Class E fires, a Carbon Dioxide (CO2) fire extinguisher is an inert gas that leaves no residue after it has be discharged.  Also used in food handling areas and patient care areas of Class 9 buildings.
Air-Water Fire Extinguisher 9.0L
A stored pressure water fire extinguisher is rated for Class A fires. Almost always purchased in a 9 litre capacity, this fire extinguisher of the perfect choice for Class A carbonaceous fires.
Air-Foam Fire Extinguisher 9.0L
An Air-Foam fire extinguisher is an ideal extinguisher for a Class B - Flammable Liquids fires. Distinguished by the Blue Band, and contains a combination of water and Aqueous Film Forming Foam ("AFFF").