Pallet Racking Systems: Understanding the Code

John Geddes
Updated on May 20, 2019

There never was a time when a company could make the decision to build a new warehouse or upgrade an existing warehouse without meeting a lengthy list of code requirements. However, approvals for changes were much simpler in past decades.

Safety is the driving force behind increased regulation for warehouses. With a fatal injury rate higher than the national average [a few years ago], it’s no wonder. Still, understanding the building code regulations is a challenge. You need to know the requirements in your area. Why? There is no national governing board setting uniform building codes related to structure. Fire codes are a little different as many fire departments rely on accepted international fire code standards.

The following are general building and fire code regulations used in most parts of the country. Check with your local municipalities for specific information.

Building Codes – What to Consider

There was a time when building codes applied only to the physical structure. Is the integrity of the building sound? Will the electrical meet the requirements for the facility? Does the plumbing comply with the latest standards?

These questions are still relevant. However, most municipalities no longer consider pallet racking systems as equipment. These systems are now considered part of the structure and as such, must meet building requirements.

A major challenge is the lack of uniformity of code requirements. Some codes are the same in every state—such as the installation of anything obstructing a straight line to a fire exit: an architectural drawing with means of egress is required. The key is knowing what applies for the area where your facility is located. You need to check with your local municipality or regional governing organization.

Municipalities want to know the design for each rack system. How will it be configured? Does it result in any dead-end aisles, blocked doors or restrict aisle space? These address basic safety issues.

Additionally, municipalities generally require permits for pallet racks eight feet tall and higher with some requiring detailed drawings of the attachments for the columns and posts along with the method and type of anchors used. The goal is ensuring the stability of the storage rack system.

Some parts of the country also require racks and similar equipment meet code for seismic (earthquake) activity. This includes doing engineering/seismic calculations for anything weight bearing or bolted to the floor. You may think code requirements for earthquake activity is restricted to areas along the west coast, so because you work in upstate New Jersey, you’re safe. Unfortunately, you would be wrong. Every state in the union has had an earthquake. Some states are more susceptible, but the long-term forecast for seismic activity may cause the need to review building codes in some areas.

Fire Concerns

According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), there are on average 1,210 warehouse fires in the United States each year. Most fires in warehouses [not intentionally set] were the result of the electrical or lighting equipment.

Building structure/infrastructure, its contents and method of storage all play a factor when it comes to meeting fire codes. Do lighting and electrical systems meet safety requirements? Is the product being stored combustible? How high are the products racked? How closely together are the products?

Storing products in concentrated small spaces is by nature creating the potential for a fire hazard. Regulations emphasize the need for a “flue space” between pallet loads on a rack (both transverse and longitudinal). This allows heat from a fire to vent vertically quickly, prompting a faster response from the sprinkler system. The NFPA states each pallet load must have a six-inch horizontal flue space between the loads. This is a slight challenge when using racks with a 92” beam length, but is possible.

Fire departments not only look at the space between the loads, but also the height. The higher products are stacked, the greater the need for access by a sprinkler system. Many situations require the use of in-rack sprinklers depending upon the type of decking. A rack system with a solid deck likely will require an in-rack sprinkler system because the fire is more difficult to extinguish. Conversely, a wire deck allows water and other fire suppressing agents easier access to the flames.

The type of product stored also is a factor in complying with fire codes. The NFPA rates materials based upon flammability levels ranging from zero (will not burn) to four (will ignite and burn readily). Steel bar is an example of a material that will not burn. On the other end of the spectrum, materials containing ingredients such as gasoline or butane are highly flammable. Many products fall somewhere in between.

Putting It All Together

Nothing is more frustrating than delays in new construction or renovation because the facility does not comply with the building and fire codes. The best way to navigate this increasingly complex process is working with professionals who understand building codes. Talk with a professional first. We’re here to help.

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