Mattress Manufacturers Awake to New U.S. Flammability Standards

By Elizabeth Dunbar | July 6, 2007

It took less than three minutes for the old mattress to become a flaming inferno. And even inside the safe confines of a Sealy Corp. testing lab in North Carolina, it took a technician armed with a gas mask and fire extinguisher, and backed by automatic sprinklers, to douse the blaze.

“We had flames in the (smoke) hood, heat in the lab room,” said lab technician Sean Haynes. “Imagine a house with curtains, carpet and furniture.”

That fear helped drive the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission to write new flammability standards aimed at reducing the number of mattress fires started by open flames such as candles and lighters. The commission calls it the most expensive regulation handed down to any industry in its history, and one it hopes will prevent as many as 270 deaths a year.

To get ready for the new standard, which toook effect July 1, Trinity, N.C.-based Sealy spent about $1 million on a state-of-the-art test center, equipped with side-by-side labs, digital video equipment, smoke hoods, sensors and those sprinklers. The standards have also forced Sealy and other manufacturers to look beyond comfort, back support and luxury when designing their products.

“You’re bringing in a whole new engineering and science discipline that you never had to have in the industry before,” said Alan Letton, Sealy’s vice president of research and technology innovation.

Approved last year, the standards limit the heat release rate and total heat that can be released in a mattress fire. Manufacturers are also required to keep detailed records of their testing, which must involve multiple trials to ensure a mattress model always burns the same way. Federal regulators are allowed to audit the test records at a moment’s notice.

While the benefits of the new standards appear obvious, they are the biggest change the industry has faced since the 1970s. That’s when federal regulators, after looking at grim fire fatality statistics, first imposed standards designed to prevent mattress fires caused by smoldering cigarettes, said Mike Murray, Sealy’s vice president and legal counsel.

The safety commission estimates U.S. manufacturers will spend at least $100 million per year to comply with the new regulations. At Sealy, which with several brands and $1.6 billion in domestic sales last year is the nation’s biggest mattress producer, it will likely cost more than $10 million to make the change, Murray said.

“The technical infrastructure is very difficult. This was not an easy thing to do, even after the expense,” he said.

Sealy is so far the only mattress manufacturer in the U.S. that’s built and set up its own testing lab. In the past 21/2 years, a robotic arm holding two T-shaped burners has set fire to more than 5,000 older mattresses and those Sealy hopes will meet the new standard.

“For a company to be able to afford that, it’s a wonderful thing,” said Ryan Trainer, executive vice president for the International Sleep Products Association, a trade group that represents the industry. “You can learn so much from having a test center like that.”

The company had previously used contract test facilities in Texas and Chicago. But Sealy principal scientist Julius Nagy said having his own test site allows the company to preserve trade secrets, providing “a safe cocoon where we can control who comes in and goes out,” Nagy said.

But while testing in secret, Sealy has decided against both pursuing patents for new fire resistant materials and asking certain suppliers to do business with them exclusively. Murray said company officials hope the newer flame-resistant foams and threads will eventually become less expensive if more manufacturers use them.

Gordon Damant, director of InterCity Testing and Consulting Corp. in Sacramento, Calif., and an expert in furniture and mattress flammability, said such a strategy will also allow smaller producers to compete with Sealy and the other industry giants.

“The large manufacturers have shown a great willingness to work with smaller ones in achieving compliance,” Damant said.

The test center allows Sealy to quickly test new ideas. That’s important, Trainer said, since the regulations mean manufacturers have less flexibility in the fabrics and foams they can use to built a mattress.

“Prior to the standard, it was relatively easy for a factory to say ‘Oh, we ran out of this, we can substitute with this.’ We can’t do that with the new standard,” Trainer said.

During a recent test session, Haynes set fire to a new flame resistant model and watched as the fire spread slowly, charring only the outside layer during the 30-minute test.

“If we can make a bed that does this, it gives the family time to get out,” Haynes said.

Murray said despite the costs of opening the center and complying with the new regulations, he doesn’t expect Sealy or other manufacturers to significantly boost prices. And unless there’s a fire, consumers won’t notice any change in where they lay their head at night.

“It’s virtually impossible to tell the difference between the two,” Murray said.

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Consumer Product Safety Commission: http://www.cpsc.gov

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