Protect From Peril

Posted by msmessenger on Oct 1, 2016 12:00:00 AM

Fire Safety Improvements For Self-Storage Facilities

In 2015, a website called Becoming Minimalist posted 21 statistics that exposed how materialistic the average U.S. citizen has turned out to be. Three of them are particularly interesting:

  • There are 300,000 items in the average American home.
  • The average size of the American home has nearly tripled in size over the past 50 years.
  • One out of every 10 Americans rents off-site storage; “the fastest growing segment of the commercial real estate industry over the past four decades.”

While the successful growth in the off-site storage sector is impressive, consumers expect the possessions they lock away will be safe from environmental and manmade threats such as wind, earthquake, flooding, theft, and fire. Modern building and fire codes such as those published by the International Code Council (ICC) and used in most U.S. jurisdictions are intended to protect lives and property from these threats.

Self-storage owners and operators can debate the cost-benefit relationship of these codes, but there is no question from a national perspective that fire is a serious threat to these properties and the contents their clients trust to be secure. It is important to remember that when a jurisdiction adopts one or more of the ICC codes, that is the minimum acceptable risk level the community is willing to accept.

Table 2 at the end of this article lists just a few of the more significant self- and mini-storage fires that have occurred in the last two years. While preparing this article, additional mini-storage fires were reported in Hutchison, Kan. (August 15); Anderson, Calif. (July 23); Tomball, Texas (July 22); Alameda, Calif. (July 20); Columbus, Texas (July 12); Helena, Mont. (July 11 and July 26); and Madras, Ore. (July 1).

From a fire official’s perspective, one of the biggest challenges with the self-storage environment is the variety of contents and operations about which the fire department has little knowledge. A fire inspector who walks into a big box retail store can see all the hazardous operations, hazardous materials, and storage arrangements. Correcting problems through education and code enforcement is relatively easy. In a mini-storage facility however, only the customer really knows what’s inside the unit. There are many apocryphal stories of drug labs, human remains, illicit weapons, and other contraband found in these facilities.

What can self-storage owners and operators do to protect their investments while assuring their customers they are doing everything reasonably possible to protect the customers’ belongings?

Capital Improvements

The ICC building codes rely on three main features to limit fire damage: early detection, spatial separation, and early suppression. Early detection, in the form of heat or smoke detection, does little except summon the fire department in the early stages of a fire so fire fighters can attempt to control it. Spatial separation consists of fire-resistant barriers (fire walls or fire-rated floors and ceilings) to contain the anticipated severity of the fire and limit its spread to prevent a total loss. Fire sprinklers offer the added benefit of early detection through the systems’ operation and the application of small amounts of water in the immediate vicinity of a fire while it is still small.

These features generally are installed at the time a building is constructed. So-called “retrofits” (adding these systems or construction after a building is erected) can be costly. The fire protection costs are just a portion of the impact in retrofits where usable space adjustments and cosmetic repairs must be added to the price. It should be noted that the ICC is working with the U.S. Congress to support the Fire Sprinkler Incentive Act that amends the Internal Revenue Code so retrofit sprinklers can be amortized over 15 years rather than the current 39-year schedule.

Perimeter security through fences and proximity intrusion detection can go a long way to protect property from unwanted intruders who may intend to damage the property or simply become squatters who may carelessly cause a fire.

Operational Improvements

Perhaps the most effective fire prevention strategy an owner/operator can employ is to assure the leased spaces are marketed for their intended use: moderately hazardous storage. While “moderately hazardous” is subject to interpretation, the ICC building codes provide examples of what this is intended to mean. Most of these products are similar to household goods. See Table 1.

Examples of “Moderate Hazard” Storage Occupancies

Bags: Cloth and burlap Bamboos and rattan Baskets
Canvas and leather belts Books and paper in rolls or packs Boots and shoes
Cardboard and cardboard boxes Clothing, woolen wearing apparel Furniture
Furs Automobile repair garages Tires
Upholstery and mattresses Wax candles Soaps

Source: International Building Code, 2015 Edition, §311.2

Automobile repair garages are included in the moderate hazard category, but there are additional fire safety regulations specifically for repair shops not found in the general “storage” requirements of the codes. Self-storage facilities are not designed nor constructed to be used as automobile repair or painting facilities, bakeries, hazardous materials warehouses, woodworking shops, or any other hazardous operation. When a self-storage facility is issued a construction permit, it is under the expectation that it will be used for storage. While it may be enticing to rent vacant space for something other than storage, it is a clear violation of the agreement under which the permit was issued.

It is equally important that the contents are suitable for the space: flammable and combustible liquids (gasoline, oil, cooking oil, oil-based paints) should not be stored indoors except in safety cans in small quantities of five gallons or less. Liquefied petroleum gases (LPG), such as butane or propane, should never be stored indoors. Explosives, blasting agents, fireworks, and other hazardous materials should never be allowed in the property.

Good housekeeping and property management practices in and around the units will go a long way to provide protection:

  • Electrical equipment and wiring should be checked regularly for damage or inappropriate use. Portable extension cords should never be used as a substitute for permanent wiring. Appliances such as refrigerators or freezers should be plugged directly into suitable, permanent outlets.
  • Natural gas meters, LPG regulators and electrical services should be protected from vehicle impact.
  • Vehicles, including boats and recreational vehicles, that are stored on the site should have batteries disconnected, LPG or other fuels removed or secured, and any electrical cords for heaters or dehumidifiers should be suitable for outdoor use.
  • Stored vehicles should be kept at least 20 feet from buildings, out of fire lanes and other access roads, and 10 feet or more from fire hydrants, fire department sprinkler connections, or fire protection water supplies.
  • Smoking should be permitted only in designated areas with appropriate ashtrays.
  • Fire lanes, access roads, and fire hydrants should be accessible to the fire department at all times.
  • Portable fire extinguishers should be checked on a regular basis to assure they are in place, are easily accessible, have not been discharged, and are not overdue for service.
  • Keep combustibles away from doors so burning embers from outside cannot enter gaps and ignite them. Wind-borne embers from grass or woodland fires can travel great distances.

Finally, self-storage owners/operators are encouraged to work with their local fire departments to develop “pre-incident plans”: an operational plan the fire service uses to identify hazards and know ahead of time locations of fire hydrants and water supplies, access roads, utility connections, fire separations, and other features they can use to control a fire. Furthermore, the local fire department or fire marshal will be more than helpful assessing your property to protect it from fires.


The diversity of self-storage facilities, their design, and construction create a challenge for the fire service. Add to that the contents of individual units or entire buildings often are unknown to everyone and you have a huge fire challenge. The self-storage owner/operator can be the best asset in the asset protection challenge.

Extract of Fire Losses in Self- and Mini-Storage Fire Loss in the U.S.

Date Location Units Destroyed  or Damaged Estimated Dollar Loss Reported Cause
July 22, 2016 Tomball, TX N/R N/R N/R
July 20, 2016 Alameda, CA 7 $750,000 Under investigation
July 12, 2016 Columbus, TX N/R N/R N/R
July 7, 2016 Virginia Beach, VA 3 $100,000 Carburetor backfire during auto repair
May 9, 2016 Pocatello, ID 30 N/R Undetermined
April 21, 2016 Brighton, CO 20 N/R Undetermined
February 23, 2016 Upper Marlboro, MD >30 $400,000 Unattended candle
January 23, 2016 Baton Rouge, LA 2 $200,000 Electrical failure
January 26, 2016 Colorado Springs, CO 12 $92,000 Indigent’s warming fire
January 4, 2016 Portland, OR 83 $3,000,000 Undetermined
February 19, 2015 Waterbury, CT 115 $600,000 Undetermined
February 14, 2015 Colorado Springs, CO 5 $20,000 Indigent’s warming fire

Rob Neale is the government relations vice president for national fire service activities at the International Code Council. He served as the deputy superintendent for curriculum at the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, Maryland, and worked as a municipal fire marshal and fire chief in Washington state.