Confused About Fire Ratings in Home and Gun Safes? – What You Should Know

Ever wonder how a home or gun safe gets its fire rating? In your search for a safe, you probably have seen a variety of ratings and wondered what they meant. Let's solve that mystery right now.

Most home and guns safes on the market today are layered with a fireboard very similar to dry wall. This fireboard can be 1/4 to 5/8 inch thick. It has a measure of moisture in it that, when heated in a fire, will release this moisture. This process keeps the interior of the safe cooler for a longer period of time. The more layers of fireboard, the longer it will stay cooler.

Other safes have what is called a "composite" material sandwiched between two layers of steel. This composite material is likable to a type of concrete, but is usually a bit lighter in weight (for obvious reasons!). This material acts an an insulator, keeping heat from penetrating into the interior of the safe in case of a fire.

There a few manufacturers using a product called K-wool in a blanket form as another type of insulator installed in safes. While there are manufacturers claiming a 2,300 degree for 1 hour fire rating, no manufacturer has achieved a third-party rating at any level. K-wool blankets are used to insulate pipes because it can be easily formed around a curved surface. Pipes do not normally need to be insulated up to the temperature of a home or gun safe, so buyer beware.

Some manufacturers have their safes tested and certified independently by a certified burn facility. In an optimal fire test, a safe is placed in a furnace with thermal couplings placed strategically inside the safe and connected to an external computer. The temperature of the furnace is ramped up to a minimum of 1,200 degrees F in nor more than 10 minutes, and then maintained for the duration of the test. During the test, the computer monitors the increase of temperature inside the safe. When the internal temperature of the safe begins to go beyond 350 degrees F, the test is considered to be over.

Other manufacturers label their safes "factory certified". A factory certified test is performed solely by the factory with no independent witness present. The rating could be a "guesstimate" based solely on the fire rating of the fireboard used without ever actually being exposed to a fire test, or it could even be based on throwing a safe into a dumpster and setting the trash on fire. There have been instances where the safe was tested in a furnace, but all the couplings were stuck inside a phone book and placed on the floor of the safe. We know that heat rises, so you can imagine how inaccurate the test results are. Sometimes the furnace ramp-up time may take 40 minutes to reach 1,200 degrees, is then only maintained for another 20 minutes, and the safe comes out with a one hour fire rating. Very deceptive. That's not to say that all "factory certified" fire ratings are inaccurate, but again, be aware. Do your homework. Ask questions. It's that important!

Now what does all this mean? As an example, a safe rated for 60 minutes at 1,200 degrees means that if you were to have a 1,200 degree fire for 60 minutes, the inside of the safe stays below 350 degrees for at least a 60 minute period during a normal house fire. If the rating is 90 minutes at 1,680 degrees, then the interior of the safe should remain lower than 350 degrees for at least 90 minutes during a 1,680 degree fire. Thirty minutes at 1,200 degrees means exactly that.

Certain contents of safes are more susceptible to heat than others. Paper begins to discolor at just above 350 degrees F, scorch at approximately 410 degrees, and ignite at 451 degrees (remember Ray Bradbury's book?). Guns will withstand this heat longer, but plastics and other pliable materials have different melting points depending on their thickness. Coin collectors who have their coins wrapped in plastic should be especially cautious with fire ratings. Obviously, the higher the fire rating, the better. There are safes on the market for extended periods of time as well as higher temperatures.

According to several firemen I have questioned over the years, a normal house fire ranges from 800 to 1,200 degrees F and will usually, but not always, be extinguished within 20 minutes. This is not the case of a fire storm, which can rage through an entire neighborhood leveling it within minutes at temperatures higher than 2000 degrees F.

Many factors enter into the equation of fire temperatures. The amount of fuel in your home affects both the temperature and the length of the fire. The more fuel, the longer and hotter the fire. If your home is constructed of wood versus block, you are going to have a hotter fire. On the other hand, brick absorbs heat at an alarming rate (think brick ovens!).

When storing documents and cash, it is obviously a wise idea to get the best fire rating you can afford. The expense of a good fire-rated safe is sometimes an obstacle to overcome. Ask yourself, "What is it worth to protect the value of what I want to put into the safe?" Sometimes the cost of one item you want to protect costs much more than the safe itself.

When considering the purchase of a home or gun safe, there are important questions to ask regarding the fire protection:

  • What is being used as the fire protection? Fireboard or composite material?
  • How many layers, or how thick is the firewall?
  • Are all the susceptible spots protected with this fire protection? Door jambs, internal hinges? Walls, ceiling and floors?
  • How was this safe tested and rated?
  • What is the warranty, if there is one, on the safe in case of fire?

When storing especially fragile items inside a safe, you may want to consider purchasing a smaller "fire box" also. Items can be placed in the fire box, and then the fire box placed inside the safe. This will protect the contents for an extended length of time at a higher temperature.

Protecting your valuables from theft is only part of the equation. Fire is always an eminent threat as well. And one other thought – check with your home owner's insurance company. Sometimes discounts are available on homeowner's insurance when you have a fire-rated safe. Keep your tax records or business papers in a fire-rated safe? Check with your CPA about a possible write-off. These are just two hidden benefits of owning a good fire-rated home or gun safe.

At the risk of being redundant, do your homework! Call a safe consultant at a local safe store and ask all the questions you need to become informed. If they do not know the answer, call someone else. It's that important and it's well worth the time and effort you put into becoming an educated safe buyer. The peace of mind you will have knowing that your stuff is secure and fire protected will reward you time and again.