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Caught in the middle Sandwich panels are being increasingly used in houses, but many insurers won’t cover them. So are the panels safe or not? By John Deex

The case for sandwich panels in construction: Insulated sandwich panels have been in use for more than 50 years. They have become popular in the building trade because they’re light and easy to handle, significantly shortening construction schedules. Best of all, their thermal properties provide continuous insulation. They have few heat or cold leakage properties. They also require little maintenance and are recyclable and reusable.

The case against: The disadvantage of insulated sandwich panels is their performance in fires. The most common criticisms of panels in fire conditions relate to the delaminating of the outer skins exposing the core, the structural ability of the panels to stay in place and not collapse during a fire, and fire spreading within the panel. There have been improvements over time to panels with the addition of fire retardants and the use of fixings made of metal rather than plastic. – Information supplied by the Insulated Panel Council Australasia

The architect wanted sandwich panels for this wall, the broker said no way: carpenter Taylor Gordon-Worrall finally used cement sheets

A HOMEOWNER IS RENOVATING AND THEIR architect recommends sandwich panels as an external wall cladding, saying they are the ideal product for the job and safe to use. The owner’s broker disagrees, insisting that getting insurance for a home containing sandwich panels will be a major problem. The builder joins the argument, saying the panels will cut building time because they’re easy to handle and they are far less prone to cracking than traditional cement panels. Such standoffs are becoming more common as sandwich panels are increasingly being spruiked to the residential and home improvement market as a cost-effective, resilient material with high insulation properties. But who is right? Sandwich panels – typically factory-engineered units comprising two metal faces and an insulating core – certainly have a chequered past. 56

In the commercial sector, they have been a factor in a number of severe fires that have hit insurers hard. Jonathan Barnett, Technical Director at consulting engineers Olsson Fire & Risk, says they are an attractive option “because they provide a construction and insulation component, and they fit together like Lego”. “The early ones were great – until they had fires. Then there were all sorts of issues. “The insulation was typically plastic, which could melt and run out from between the panels. It was like having someone pouring burning gasoline into your property. “When there was a fire they also tended to come apart at the connections. Before you knew it the panels started falling down. Where you thought you had a wall to act as a firebreak, suddenly you didn’t.” But the technology has moved on. Today, there are a variety of core materials used – and many are extremely fire-resistant. insuranceNEWS

October/November 2013

Industry expert Allan Manning has carried out tests on different grades of the material. “Some of it has a fire retardant and in our testing we could not get it to ignite,” he says. Dr Barnett agrees that large-scale tests are needed to stress the panels in the same way a real fire does. US-based insurer FM Global has developed such a test “and with application requirements and testing protocol we can make sure the risks can be managed”. But there are still concerns. “If you have the wrong panels and you don’t follow procedures then there will be a property protection issue,” Dr Barnett says. Professor Manning agrees. “It is very important that any product that is used is fire-rated. “What worries me is, who is making sure that what goes into homes is the fire-resistant product?

Profile for Insurance News (the magazine)

OCT/NOV 2013 - Insurance News (the magazine)  

QBE CEO John Neal has spoken exclusively to Insurance News about his drive to turn the global insurer’s fortunes around. Our in-depth articl...

OCT/NOV 2013 - Insurance News (the magazine)  

QBE CEO John Neal has spoken exclusively to Insurance News about his drive to turn the global insurer’s fortunes around. Our in-depth articl...