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Large-scale fire tests help Lowe's warehouse centers open for business

NOTE: This information is from a previously printed press release, newsletter, or other dated document. It is presented here for archival purposes only.

1998: Try making a store packed with home improvement products look open and appealing, and yet give customers easy access to the merchandise. Oh, and for good measure, be sure whatever you put into the store -- merchandise, shelving, electricity, sprinkler system, doors, windows, even the building itself -- meets local fire and building codes, as well as insurance requirements.

That's the challenge being met by Lowe's Companies Inc., the North Carolina-based corporation, as it opens Lowe's Home Warehouse Centers all over the United States. Eighty new stores are scheduled to open this year - bringing the total to 500 stores in 27 states. And Lowe's management has called on UL to help do it.

Lowe's objectives are to make the new stores virtually identical to reinforce its brand image -- using only two building prototypes -- while meeting building and fire codes in all of the states where Lowe's will have stores. As Lowe's moved into different states, some building and fire inspectors felt that the shelving configuration, combined with the early-suppression fast-response (ESFR) sprinklers in Lowe's buildings, were not in accordance with local fire codes. In one case, a store was denied permission to open pending proof of compliance.

That's where UL's expertise in large-scale fire testing came into play. Lowe's asked UL to conduct tests on shelving units with 6-inch flue spaces - packed with different types of merchandise -- to see if ESFR sprinklers would suppress a fire set to the units.

The shelving was set up in UL's large-scale fire test facility, with an ESFR sprinkler system using the same distance between sprinkler heads and the same ceiling height found in the Lowe's stores. When merchandise was placed on the shelves, a vertical 6-inch flue space was left open every eight feet along the shelving, so water could get to the burning merchandise when the sprinkler system operated. After the test fire was ignited and the sprinklers operated, UL collected data on the number of operating sprinklers, ceiling and gas temperatures, water flow rate and pressure, flame spread, and damage to the commodity or merchandise to include in Lowe's report. At the end of each test, UL prepared test reports that contain all of the data collected. From this information, Lowe's makes determinations about merchandise storage arrangements and sprinkler system types needed to protect its stored commodities.

"With UL's reports, we can show building and fire officials in any state our shelving and sprinkler systems are acceptable, even though they may deviate slightly from local code requirements," says Bob Oberosler, Lowe's vice president for loss prevention and safety. "We run the fire tests at UL because we want to know, and we want the code authorities and insurance people to know, that our designs have passed UL requirements and our stores are as safe as we can make them for our customers and employees."

Oberosler noted that this job was made easier because of UL engineers' expertise and experience in fire testing. He also said that he had learned a lot through witnessing the testing process, and is willing to share that knowledge with others - even competitors - because Lowe's has a strong commitment to public safety.

Oberosler adds, "Our type of retailing is family-oriented -- we encourage families to come in together to shop. That's why we're going through this process with UL, testing all types of products, sprinklers and our designs to help make our stores safer for the public."