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Managing Risks of Composite Panels

Composite panels have become an incredibly popular building material over the last few decades, thanks to their energy efficiency and ability to enable faster construction. However, some types of composite panels pose severe fire risks that can leave companies facing higher insurance premiums.

What Are Composite Panels?

Composite panels consist of two metal facings sandwiching a thermally insulated core, which is bonded to the facings. The metal facings are usually aluminum, steel or stainless steel. The insulating core can comprise various combustible materials (discussed below). Composite panels are not the same as built-up systems assembled on-site or single-skin claddings.

Identifying Composite Panels

Determining if a building utilises composite panels simply from visual inspection can be deceptively difficult, as some types appear very similar. The best approach is first checking architectural plans or drawings, which should detail panel types and specifications. Without these, independent testing is necessary to conclusively identify panels. Insurers will assume any untested panels are the least fire-resistant type.

Using Composite Panel Data

Once panel data is obtained, it should be recorded on building/site plans, highlighting locations and insulation composition. This information aids emergency responders in fire risk assessment and preparation.

Key Fire Risks

Insurers consider all composite panels combustible to some degree and expect robust management systems controlling panel exposure to potential ignition sources like flames, heat, electrical faults etc. Damaged panels are especially vulnerable to fire spread.

Effective Risk Management Strategies

To persuade insurers your company has fire risks sufficiently controlled, your risk management system for composite panels should include:

  • Prompt identification and repair of damaged panels

  • Fireproof sealing around panels to contain exposed insulation

  • Stringent control, monitoring and documentation of work on panels

  • Protection and oversight of electrical equipment near panels

  • Extra mechanical damage precautions in high-risk areas

  • Replacement pledge for any irreparable panels using upgraded noncombustible or insurer-approved alternatives

Emerging Risks – PV Panels

Photovoltaic solar panels installed on top of composite roofs constitute an emerging risk due to associated cabling and electrical components. In these cases, additional noncombustible cladding over roof insulation may be necessary to satisfy insurers.

Insurer Panel Rating Systems

Insurers utilise various standards to rate composite panels by fire resistance and risk level. Below is a breakdown from least to most acceptable:

  1. Polystyrene (EPS/XPS) – Avoid using these lightweight, moisture-resistant panels externally or around high-heat equipment. Highly combustible.

  2. Polyurethane (PUR) – Better fire resistance than polystyrene but still combustible. Common in pre-1995 buildings.

  3. Phenolic – Pipe and duct insulation panels that burn rapidly and emit toxic smoke.

  4. 'Insurer-Approved' PIR – Features integrated fire retardants to minimise fire spread. Widely used in contemporary buildings. Meets standards like LPS, FM Approvals for fire, smoke and toxicity.

The safest option is noncombustible products like brick, concrete or stone-wool insulation. Using highly rated materials improves safety and insurer acceptance.

With high stakes surrounding composite panel risks, it pays dividends for businesses and property owners to invest in research, planning and pragmatic risk management of composite panels and fire inception hazards.

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