Choosing A Fire-Resistant Sofa: What Homeowners Need To Know

When you're choosing a new sofa, it's important to select a product that is durable, comfortable and looks great, but you also need to consider fire safety. Upholstered furniture is probably the highest fire risk in your home, and a single sofa fire can engulf a home in toxic smoke in just a few minutes. If you're looking for a new sofa, learn more about the fire risks and why it's not always easy to find products that will keep your family safe.

The cost of house fires

In the United States, around 10 people die every week when a fire starts with upholstered furniture. In the majority of cases, cigarettes are the leading cause of these fires, but matches, lighters and candles are all dangerous. Research shows that the total annual cost of upholstered furniture fires exceeds $2 billion, and that's without considering the human misery and pain that these disasters can cause.

When your sofa catches fire, it's not normally the flames that cause death and injury. The synthetic materials that some manufacturers use in these products create highly toxic smoke that can quickly overwhelm anyone caught in a burning room. Toxic gases from upholstered furniture can include carbon monoxide, hydrogen cyanide and phosgene. High levels of phosgene can quickly cause a fatal pulmonary edema.

Furniture standards in the United States

In the United States, only California has adopted a fire safety regulation that covers upholstered furniture sold for residential homes. California originally adopted Technical Bulletin 117 (TB 117) in 1975. TB117 mandated that manufacturers should use a filling in upholstered furniture that could withstand a 12-second exposure to an open flame.

Critics of TB117 (including scientists and academics) complained for some time that TB117 did not fully protect a family during a house fire. Products that met this standard would not prevent ignition because the standard did not apply to the outer cover fabric. Indeed, reports showed that furniture that did not meet the standard burned in a similar way to TB117-compliant furniture.

TB117-2013 came into effect on January 1, 2014. Manufacturers of upholstered furniture should now carry out a smolder test on any fabric, filling, decking and barrier used. Open flame tests are no longer mandatory. Manufacturers must test the components collectively with standard fabric and/or foam. If a fabric does not pass the smolder test, manufacturers must add a compliant barrier (such as polyester batting) between the fabric and foam.

TB117-2013 becomes mandatory in California on January 1, 2015. Experts estimate that around 85 percent of products on the market comply with the new law. That aside, outside California, no national standard exists for fire-resistant upholstered furniture.

The risk of flame retardants

Many manufacturers used flame-retardant chemicals to help their products meet TB117 standards. While these products could resist an open flame for 12 seconds, these chemicals introduced other risks. A 2012 study found that manufacturers treated 85 percent of couches with chemicals that are toxic or dangerous to human health. Many other countries have banned the use of one of these chemicals (pentaBDE).

TB117-2013 helps families avoid this risk because these chemicals will no longer help manufacturers meet the standard. That aside, TB117-2013 does not ban these chemicals, so consumers must still make carefully informed choices.

Choosing the right product

Although TB117 and TB117-2013 only legally apply in California, reputable manufacturers generally adopt these standards nationwide.

Look for a sofa that displays a TB117-2013 label. You can have confidence that these products meet the new smolder standards that are most effective at saving lives during a house fire. Remember that products with a TB117-2013 label may still use flame retardants. Talk to the retailer or manufacturer about these issues, and confirm if the sofa has flame retardant in it.

Many manufacturers already meet TB117-2013 standards, and others are working to replace and remove flame retardants. Some materials are also naturally flame resistant, so look for fabrics such as wool, cotton or jute. You may need to spend more money on this type of high-end furniture, but it's worth investing in peace of mind.

If you're in the market for a new sofa, it's important to understand the fire risk of upholstered furniture, and how some products are more dangerous than others. Talk to a retailer at a furniture store like Design Center Furniture before you buy anything, and make sure you are choosing a sofa that will keep your family as safe as possible.