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From: Food Quality & Safety magazine, April/May 2009

Don't Let Fixed Walls Block Flexibility

Fabric walls are an effective solution for humidity, other problems

by Matt Fleckenstein

Ensuring food quality and safety often means altering the physical space in plant or warehouse facilities, especially when temperature and humidity control are at stake. It’s an unfortunate prospect for many because, traditionally, this involves costly and time-consuming construction projects involving solid insulated walls or rigid panelized structures. But it’s time to move beyond traditional thinking and try fabric walls. And with good reason: Fabric walls save money and allow users to quickly get a handle on climate control issues that threaten food quality and safety.

Sometimes called “curtain walls” or “soft walls,” fabric wall systems are similar to solid walls in that they define and protect an area. As the name implies, however, fabric walls are very different from traditional solid walls or rigid panelized systems because they’re not permanent structures. They can be quickly and easily installed, dismantled, and re-installed, giving them a high degree of flexibility.

A fabric wall can be used in place of a conventional wall in virtually any non-load-bearing application. But fabric walls can do things traditional walls can’t. For example, the walls can be installed as stationary systems or sliding units. Stationary walls can be affixed to existing building structures like ceiling joists, or custom metal frameworks can be constructed. Sliding walls operate on a track and trolley system. The fabrics used to form the actual walls differ in materials and properties, allowing them to be precisely matched to the application. The operating environment and a host of site-specific factors dictate the type of fabric wall and the configuration best suited for a given situation.

The Basics and More

In the world of food quality and safety, fabric walls are ideal for temperature separation and humidity control, yet they’re equally well suited to address a number of other industry issues. Three basic types of fabric walls used to support food quality and safety initiatives include insulated walls, non-insulated units, and washdown curtains. The walls can be used either separately or together as a cohesive system.

Insulated fabric walls are designed for temperature separation. A variety of insulated fabric walls, each with specific insulating properties, are available to match the level of temperature separation needed. Technically advanced systems offer temperature separation up to 40°F (22°C). For example, items can be stored at 45°F on one side of the wall with ambient 85°F on the other; frozen products can be kept at -12°F on one side, while it is 28°F on the other side. The ability to achieve separation up to 40°F is a recent innovation that sets a new standard in fabric wall capabilities.

Non-insulated walls are used in situations that don’t call for temperature separation or heat containment. They’re typically used to separate the interiors of large processing operations and warehouses into smaller, separate zones and are ideal for addressing issues related to odor and contaminants.

On processing lines, washdown curtains isolate production lines during washdown procedures. The curtain itself is typically constructed with vinyl material in compliance with U.S. Department of Agriculture requirements. The vinyl material withstands harsh washdown detergents and chemicals. The wall systems use stainless steel tracks and trolley systems to slide the curtain in and out of position.

Aside from the types of fabric walls available, there are virtually no limits on how these systems can be configured. It’s just a matter of deciding the most appropriate design as well as where the walls will provide the most value.

Optimal Climate Control

Whether it’s a processing operation, cooler or freezer environment, or dry warehouse, the bottom line with flexible fabric walls is optimal climate control. The value of this feature cannot be overstated given the importance of closely regulating temperature and humidity levels in virtually any industrial food operation.

Some of the most common climate control challenges include floor plans with rooms and spaces that are difficult to heat or cool; improperly designed HVAC systems that don’t maintain proper temperatures or ensure sufficiently conditioned air; coolers and freezers that struggle to hold items at proper temperatures; pressurized space that loses pressure, resulting in temperature and humidity fluctuations; and increased temperature and humidity levels caused by washdowns with high-pressure sprayers. Problems with washdowns also include the potential for chemicals and contaminants to filter into adjacent production lines due to overspray.

Other food quality concerns involve unwanted air transference. One such problem occurs when the odor of raw ingredients or finished products infiltrates other ingredients or products. A similar problem occurs when food dust or contaminants find their way into mixing and production areas.

Because each problem is unique, using fabric walls to solve climate control issues involves creativity. To address the most common food quality and safety issues, the walls can be designed to:

  • create separate zones for precise control of temperatures and humidity levels within specific areas of the plant;
  • isolate temperature- and humidity-sensitive areas from other areas of the plant to boost the efficiencies of HVAC systems, while also ensuring proper climate control;
  • subdivide cooler and freezer space for tighter control of items kept at separate temperatures (up to 40°F/22°C);
  • partition cooler and freezer space to boost the efficiency of the refrigerant system—and avoid dangerous temperature fluctuations;
  • gain control of temperature and humidity levels at the loading dock with separate, temperature-controlled staging areas;
  • introduce barriers in processing and storage areas to prevent the loss of pressurized air;
  • prevent unwanted air transference, thereby minimizing problems associated with food dust and contaminants;
  • prevent overspray during washdowns and keep a lid on temperature and humidity levels resulting from washdown procedures;
  • separate food ingredients and finished products from production process or other ingredients and products to prevent the transference or absorption of odors; and
  • protect against the infiltration of pests with specially designed dock enclosures.

In addition to tackling these pressing issues, fabric walls also contribute to food quality and safety measures by virtue of their flexibility. One excellent example is the need to adjust to changes in food trends and fads. Fabric walls facilitate changeovers, ensuring that quality and safety goals remain uncompromised.

Cost Savings

The main advantages of fabric walls over traditional walls and panel systems are simplicity and flexibility, both of which contribute to cost savings. Simplicity and flexibility also equate to agility, which is essential when the goal is to quickly gain control over issues that threaten food quality and safety. The same holds true when industry changes drive the need to adapt processing and storage areas.

The reality is that a traditional wall built with wood and drywall is a permanent structure. And the planning and work that go into demolishing traditional walls and building new ones are often complicated and costly. Building permits are also typically required and can slow the process. In addition, many food companies affix fiberglass reinforced plastic (FRP) panels to the walls to aid in cleaning the wall surface. The installation process for these is cumbersome and time consuming.

Another method traditionally used to define space and obtain temperature separation involves the use of insulated metal panel (IMP) systems. As with traditional walls, demolition and construction of IMP systems often involves multiple steps. Like traditional walls, panel systems also require a concrete curb around the base of the wall to protect against damage caused by materials handling equipment. The curbing adds considerable cost to any project, whether it’s to cover work to demolish an existing curb or additional labor and materials to construct the new curb.

An additional consideration related to walls is tied to the racking used to store food ingredients and finished products. The need to remove racks to make room for the construction of traditional walls or panel systems, as well as the need to reinstall the racks upon project completion, adds significant time and cost.

When compared with traditional walls and most panel systems, fabric walls are typically easier and faster to design and install for a number of reasons. Often, because both insulated and non-insulated fabric walls attach directly to the existing building structures, few installation steps are involved. In other instances, the walls use a lightweight metal framework to support the fabric curtains. The frames of the most advanced models are designed to ensure ease of assembly and disassembly. Additionally, building permits are usually not required.

Another positive is that fabric walls do not require curbing. Instead, the walls are able to withstand most forklift impacts without the kind of catastrophic damage that occurs with permanent structures. The walls can also be installed in the flues of racking, eliminating the need to remove and re-install the racks.

Speed: The Common Thread

The common thread running through all fabric walls is the ability they provide to address climate control issues without delay, an essential advantage because, more often than not, challenges associated with food quality and safety require immediate attention.

Deciding whether to use flexible fabric walls to address any number of quality control and safety issues is a matter of moving beyond traditional thinking. Making the right decision also hinges on a thorough understanding of the options that best fit the application, which is why it’s good practice to rely on a knowledgeable and reputable supplier for guidance.

With flexible fabric walls, there’s no reason to let challenges related to climate control—and many other issues associated with a facility’s interior space—stand in the way of food quality and safety.

Fleckenstein is an industry specialist at Zoneworks Cold Storage. Reach him at mfleckenstein@zoneworks.com or (630) 379-1752.

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