What Is An Intermediate Bulk Container and What Are The Risks?

Intermediate Bulk Containers (IBCs)
General Fact Sheet

Intermediate bulk containers are closed shipping vessels
with a liquid capacity from 450 up to 3,000 L (119 to 793
gallons). They are intended for storing and transporting
liquids defined in the Code of Federal Regulations and
the United Nations’ Recommendations on the Transport
of Dangerous Goods, which include combustible and
flammable liquids.* These rules, however, do not require any
fire testing of IBCs.

IBCs can be constructed of metal, plastic or a composite of
materials. Composite IBCs are commonly a combination of
blow-molded plastic containers in a metal cage or a plastic
bag in a corrugated box.

When composite IBCs containing combustible or flammable
liquids are stored together in warehouses or other facilities,
they can cause dangerous pool fires. These fire hazards
have two components:

1. Release of combustible and flammable liquids.
When IBCs containing flammable or combustible liquids
fail, they can release a large pool of these liquids. If
ignited, the extreme heat release rates can overtax most
fire sprinkler systems. This hazard exists regardless of
how the IBC is constructed.

2. Composite IBCs can be easily breached and then
the IBC itself contributes to the fire hazard.
Composite IBCs can be easily breached by exposure to
even a small fire. Additionally, once the unit is emptied,
the composite may ignite and contribute to the liquid
pool. Pool fires caused by composite IBCs can be
catastrophic events and are capable of destroying the
building where the event occurs. A spreading pool fire
can also threaten adjacent buildings.


NFPA 30 – the Flammable and Combustible Liquids Code
published by the National Fire Protection Association –
provides safeguards to reduce the hazards associated
with the storage, handling and use of flammable and
combustible liquids. The code is enforceable under building
and fire prevention codes in the following states: Ala., Ariz.,
Ark., Calif., Colo., Conn., Fla., Hawaii, Iowa, Ill., Ind., Kan.,
Ky., Mass., Maine, Mich., Minn., Mo., Mont., N.D., Neb.,
N.J., N.M., Nev., Ohio, Ore., R.I., Texas, Utah, Va., Vt. and
Wis. It is also enforceable in several local jurisdictions. Other
avenues of enforcement may include Occupational Safety
and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations.

NFPA 30 only permits three types of IBCs in an industrial
building. Metal, rigid plastic and composite. Only liquids with
a closed cup flash point of 38 C (100 degrees F) or greater
are permitted to be stored in these containers. However, the
composite IBCs must be listed and labeled. The complete
rules on what types of IBCs are allowed in buildings can be
found in chapter 9 of NFPA 30 (visit www.nfpa.org/30 to
access the chapters for free).

Unlisted composite IBCs have not been inspected or
certified to provide any fire endurance and have been shown
to fail quickly in a fire. Listed composite IBCs, however,
have been designed, built and certified to last in a fire for at
least 20 minutes, and can be used for storing liquids with a
closed cup flash point of 38 C (100 degrees F) or greater.
Of the dozens of composite IBCs on the market, there is
currently only a very small fraction of listed and labeled
composite IBCs in use. The vast majority of composite IBCs
that are used to store combustible or flammable liquids are
creating a significant hazard.


U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and United
Nations regulations permit the shipping of combustible
liquids and some flammable liquids in many types of IBCs.
However, transportation regulations do not require IBCs to
be fire tested and DOT has no jurisdiction over commodities
in storage. Yet, many producers and customers alike believe
that a shipping container approved by DOT is also approved
for storage in a warehouse. This is not the case. NFPA 30
rules limit the types of IBCs allowed in buildings and also set
limits on the liquid types permitted in them.

Additionally, warehouse or facility personnel responsible
for accepting or storing goods are often unaware of the
serious fire hazard created by composite IBCs containing
combustible and flammable liquids. As a result, improper
storage and potentially dangerous conditions often go


One: Determine whether the IBC is in or will eventually
enter a protected facility.
A protected facility is defined in NFPA 30. Requirements
include, but are not limited to, increased levels of sprinklers
or other protections, depending on the hazards to be
protected against.

Two: Identify the liquids to be stored.
Determine if liquids stored or being received are NFPA 30
Class I (flammable – flash point 100 F), NFPA 30 Class II
(combustible – flash point 100 F up to 140 F) or Class III
(combustible – flash point 140 F and higher).

Three: Identify the IBC material.
Identify if the IBC is metal, plastic or composite, and if the
latter, if it is listed and labeled.

Four: Determine if the IBC material is appropriate for
storage of its contents in the protected facility.
Determine if any of the Class I liquids are stored or being
received in composite IBCs. If so, switch to metal IBCs.
Determine if any of the Class II or Class III liquids are
stored or being received in unlisted IBCs. If so, you can
comply with NFPA 30 by switching to listed composite
or metal IBCs.

Generally, flammable liquids (flash point below 38 C or 100
degrees F) should never be placed in a plastic IBC of any
type, listed or unlisted. Combustible liquids should never
be placed in an unlisted plastic IBC. Additionally, in some
cases, other fire properties, such as fire point, may also
govern storage requirements. Those responsible for the
storage of combustible and flammable liquids should always
look beyond the flash point and also assess the chemical
composition of the liquids contained in the IBC to better
assess the fire risk posed.


The Fire Protection Research Foundation with funding from
the Property Insurance Research Group in coordination
with NFPA and the insurance industry are working together
on an awareness campaign to help reduce the risk created
by improper storage of IBCs containing combustible or
flammable liquids. This effort includes the following activities:

• Educate impacted groups – container manufacturers,
chemical manufacturers, code and fire officials,
warehouse owners, managers and staff, insurance
representatives, procurement and supply chain
specialists, risk managers and fire fighters – on what they
can do to ensure safe storage.

• Encourage those responsible for storage of combustible
and flammable liquids to:
1. Check their facilities, operations and procedures for
NFPA 30 compliance.
2. Correct any composite IBC hazards.
Everyone can help reduce this risk by following steps
at nfpa.org to make a commitment to safe
storage. Here you can learn more about the issue and find
tailored information for container manufacturers, chemical
manufacturers, code and fire officials, warehouse owners,
managers and staff, insurance representatives, procurement
and supply chain specialists, risk managers and fire fighters.

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