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Is it worth getting fire retardant carpet and fittings?

Fire in the home or office is an ever present danger, so it is sensible to take precautions to both minimise the possibility of fire breaking out and to minimise injury and damage to property once a fire has broken out.

Installing fire retardant carpet or treating existing carpet and other fittings with fire retardant treatment is one of the preventative measures you can take, but is it worth it?

In a recent episode of the ABC science program Catalyst (, scientists at the CSIRO major fire testing facility staged a test fire where they recreated a typical young child’s bedroom, equipping it with a range of furniture, fittings and toys you would expect to find in any small child’s room. They lit a small flame on a bedside table and let the fire take its course. Within a minute a bookshelf, pillows and a bean bag were engulfed in flames (with the bean bag billowing out choking black smoke), and within two minutes a light fitting melted, the carpet started peeling and the rest of the room was totally consumed by the fire. Within two minutes the fire had reached a point referred to as ‘flashover’, where the near simultaneous ignition of most of the combustible material occurs within an enclosed area.

A scientist went on to explain that the speed with which the fire took hold was entirely related to the materials that make up the furniture and other items in a modern house. Sixty years ago solid wood furniture with hessian and horsehair fabric would have taken a lot longer to reach flashover, around 17-20 minutes. But modern materials are petrochemical based and a modern day sofa can be the solid equivalent of 6 litres of petrol, which ignites and burns much more quickly than its olden day equivalent.

So prevention – working smoke alarms, fire extinguishers, maintenance of electrical cabling etc – is the top priority. However, fire retardant treatments, especially of curtains and wall hangings, can buy precious time in a fire, where the priority must be evacuation and avoiding inhaling toxic fumes.

In large carpet installations in hotels and large apartment complexes, fire retardant treatment may be worthwhile from a commercial point of view ie avoiding having to replace all of the carpet in the event of a fire. Before getting fire retardant treatment on your carpets, it is worth checking whether it would invalidate any warranties you have on the carpet, and it is also worth finding out exactly what type of fire retardant chemical treatment would be used.

Another approach of course is to install natural fibre carpets instead of synthetic fibre carpet. Wool carpets are naturally fire resistant – wool has a very high ignition temperature (~580C), does not melt or stick, needs a lot of oxygen to continue to burn and puts out very little heat when it does burn, plus it is ‘self extinguishing’. So the slightly higher price you pay for wool carpets brings an added safety benefit.

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