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Refrigerators for fire protection?

Stephen Schoof , Apr 26, 2000; 08:43 a.m.

Every time I leave my apartment for extended periods I have visions of the place burning down and taking my life's work of photography with it. A couple times I've read in Popular Photography (I know, I know) that some people use old refrigerators to store their work, which supposedly offers as much fire protection as fire-proof safes. When I asked my local fire department, they didn't agree, but I didn't get the impression that they really knew one way or the other.

Does anyone know if there is any credibility to the refrigerator idea? I really don't need the theft-protection of an expensive safe, and my home office actually sits below-ground, so I don't need anything strong enough to survive a fall through a burning floor.

If refrigerators don't work, I may look into the Sentry safes mentioned by a previous poster on this topic. Right now I am not interested in copying my work digitally/traditionally and storing it elsewhere. Any other ideas?


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Chuck Bettis , Apr 26, 2000; 09:04 a.m.

As a professional firefighter, I was curious about this also and began to observe refrigerators post-fire. While refrigerators theoretically make great insulators, they have one fatal flaw and that is the rubber/magnetic door seals. In significant fires, I invariably find that the door seals have failed and in many cases the door has opened and exposed contents to fire/gasses/high heat. In contrast, I've seldom seen fireproof (nothing is really fireproof) safes opened after very hot fires in which the contents were destroyed.....but often discolored or damaged. Even that fireproof safe will act as an oven and any heat sensitive materials inside will be impacted.

Tom Johnston , Apr 26, 2000; 09:35 a.m.

I had stored all my photo archives in an old refrigerator with this idea in mind.

To make a long story short, the fire started in the refrigerator.

Just kidding!

I would think that a refrigerator should give you a margin of protection, but as Chuck pointed out (and he should know) if the refrigerator is directly in an intense fire, all bets are off.

But it still should be better than nothing at all, of course.

Did you ever think of storing your prints at one location and your negatives and transparencies at another? I'm glad that you brought up this topic because I really should follow my own advice on this (which I don't - yet).


jeff Drew , Apr 26, 2000; 10:07 a.m.

Working in bank security for many years, I've come across issues of microfilm storage etc. Temperature increases and vapors/combustion gases will ruin films. Vaults, fireproof drawers etc. are rated in terms of temps and times. Good fire protection would be to rent a safety deposit box at a bank, usually under $100/yr depending on size etc. The refrigerator idea will work up to a point, as will any container. Really valuable stuff should be stored off-premises, IMHO.

Preston Wilson , Apr 26, 2000; 10:52 a.m.

About 10 years ago a friend's house burned down. He had a "fire proof" gun safe in the home, which contained his firearms, some money, as well as other valuables. To make a long story short, almost everything inside the safe was damaged to some extent. If not directly from the heat, then from the very hot water and ashes that were sucked in when the safe cooled off as it was hosed down. I.e. I don't think a refrigerator will offer much protection and fire safes offer only a limited amount of protection to something like photos and film.

Ben Jackson , Apr 26, 2000; 11:09 a.m.

Fireproof safes generally have a sacrificial wax layer which is supposed to melt, holding the temperature constant until it is gone. That temperature is just under 300F, the flashpoint of paper. I suspect that even if your work didn't burn outright it wouldn't be in like-new condition! Also, I don't know what the archival properties of the common (very strong smelling!) fire retardant used on fire safe linings. You may be endangering your work just by storing it in the safe.

An old fridge may keep your work dry and smoke-free if a small fire starts elsewhere in the house and the fire department contains it before the room with the fridge is engaged.

BTW, if your safe is on the first floor then it needs to survive having the second floor fall on it...

Ron Gemeinhardt , Apr 26, 2000; 11:10 a.m.

Structural strength shouldn't be overlooked just because your storage is in the basement. True, the box can't fall through a burning floor--but a burning floor can fall on the box! Odds are pretty good a refrigerator door would pop open in that scenario, apart from the problems already mentioned.

If you go with a Sentry-type fire safe, you can extend the protection it affords a bit by making it harder for burning debris to reach it/land on it. Locate the safe in a corner, and/or under a big pile of cinderblock or brick--you get the idea. The longer the fire takes to reach the safe, and the more energy it has to give up on the way, the better.

Ryan Taylor , Apr 26, 2000; 12:49 p.m.

I think storing images inside a firesafe would be a waste of money. Although the safe would keep the materials inside from physically incinerating, films would be ruined just from the heat.

Stephen Schoof , Apr 26, 2000; 01:03 p.m.

Apparently there's no easy answer, but I do appreciate these (and future) responses. Maybe I'll try putting a safe inside a refrigerator. . .

Terry Carraway , Apr 26, 2000; 01:31 p.m.

Look at the ratings and information. Typically the manufacturer an tell you how long in typical fire the temperature will remain below some number. Then figure out if that temperature is acceptable for what you want to store in there.

Most fire rated safes are designed to protect paper and wood from being destroyed in a house fire. In general, I would think that film would be harmed in most any standard safe during a house fire. Prints might survive, but the gelatin would have likely melted at some point.

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