When it comes to selecting the right building material for the project at hand, architects have many options. Natural materials like wood, metal and stone may be right when beauty and durability are key. But manmade materials also have their place, particularly when cost and ability to stand up to demanding environments are critical design considerations. Technology has enabled the production of fiber-reinforced plastics (FRP) to provide the characteristics needed to simulate – and often surpass – many of the performance characteristics of traditional materials. Just as durable, frequently stronger and typically more cost effective, lighter, easier to clean and install, FRP machine has solutions for industrial and commercial challenges, particularly those with corrosive environments. This article will serve as a primer on FRP ceiling and wall panels, discussing their properties, how they are made, and their appropriate applications.
While many plastics are pure plastics, there are also plastic composites. Plastics can be reinforced when additional strength is needed, usually with reinforcing fibers. The combination of plastic and reinforcement produces some of the strongest materials for their weight ever made. An FRP composite is actually a combination of a polymer matrix and a reinforcing agent such as glass, carbon, or aramid (a class of heat-resistant and strong synthetic fibers), so that there is a length to thickness ratio that provides a reinforcing function.
The resin protects the fibers, maintains their alignment, and distributes the loads evenly among them. The FRP sheets panels may also contain fillers, additives and core materials. None of the elements in a composite dissolve or merge completely into each other, but act together to offer benefits ideal for structural applications. The FRP significantly increases the members’ load carrying capacity. According to the American Composites Manufacturing Association, FRP composites deliver more strength per unit of weight than most metals and are 1/5th the weight of steel.
Many FRP wall and ceiling panels are made of thermoset plastic, that is, a material that undergoes a
chemical reaction in which it is formed into a solid and cannot be reformed. By reinforcing the plastic matrix, a wide variety of physical strengths and properties can be designed into the FRP composite. Additionally, the type and configuration of the reinforcement can be selected, along with the type of plastic and additives within the matrix. FRP composites can be developed specifically for the performance required versus traditional materials such as wood, metal, ceramics, and the like. A key advantage of FRP is that engineers can design the FRP composite to provide the needed characteristics, and avoid cost penalties of an over-engineered product.
A thermoset FRP wall panel provides a long-term, durable, sanitary finish that meets the rugged performance needed in food processing, health care and storage environments. The primary advantage of the FRP decorative plastic panels is their long-term resolution of these performance needs.
On the other hand, non-reinforced thermoplastic panels such as those made of PVC, PE or PP, or combinations thereof, may be lower in cost but have inferior performance characteristics. Because of their lack of reinforcement, they are particularly difficult to install properly. Both PE- and PP-based panels may be more difficult to use with water-based latex adhesives because of high-surface tension properties. That is, during installation, latex adhesives can tend to “bead” and resist spreading, possibly causing delamination early after installation. The high surface tension, combined with thermal expansion up to three times higher than that of FRP panels, can cause bubbles and bulges in wall panels within weeks of installation. Further, only a small temperature change will result in a relatively large expansion of the non reinforced thermoplastic panels-a property that will cause failure and need for replacement in refrigerated and cooking areas.
The soft surface of the thermoplastics makes them poor performers in cleanability and abrasion. Surface hardness tests show that FRP colored plastic roofing sheets are over three times harder than non-reinforced thermoplastics which tend to stain easily and become difficult to clean. This applies to graffiti, food stains and yellowing and color change. In terms of durability, the thermoplastic panels display only 24 percent of the stiffness provided in FRP panels. While often touted as environmentally friendly, non-reinforced thermoplastics contain a small percentage of recycled plastic. The higher the recycled plastic component, the lower the performance characteristics, and use of recycled content contributes to premature aging and yellowing.
In selecting thermoset FRP panels, which have no recycled plastic at this point, architects should note that they do vary in strength based on the amount of fiberglass reinforcement. Less expensive panels tend to have less reinforcement. The panels are generally utilitarian, rather than aesthetic, and have a tendency to yellow with age, though this can be somewhat offset by use of a special sealant. An installation crew experienced with FRP clear roofing sheets is advisable.