Polystyrene Ceiling Tiles Are Legal... For Now

Polystyrene ceiling tiles are not illegal, surprisingly. The same is true for polystyrene coving. If you go to stockists and DIY stores, you'll still be able to buy them; clearly, they are not illegal.

The better question is: are they a fire risk? and the answer is 100% yes.

Why people would still consider installing this type of material above head height onto ceilings and walls is beyond me. Yes, they're easy to handle, easy to cut and easy to fix onto plastered surfaces, but the benefits are far outweighed by the risk of injury should a fire occur.

flammable polystyrene being sold on a website

On our homepage, we link to articles and guides on safety and this post is a continuation of that. We've recently been undertaking a number of refurbishments on old terraced properties and it is startling to see how many homes still have ceiling tiles - polystyrene or otherwise.

I can accept that at at some point an ugly ceiling may have been easily covered by a thick wallpaper or tiles, but I can't ever see how polystyrene as a material would ever have looked any better. The glossy and artificial look of the material is off-putting to most people.

Polystyrene Coving is flammable: why does it exist?

The past 12 months, we've done about 12 refurbishments. We do tend to buy old, dilapdated houses that need at least a cosmetic turnaround. Of the 12, about 4 or 5 had occupants that had been in the property for over 20 years. This might go some way to explain why these ceiling tiles and coving had remained i.e. no refurbishment had taken place.

For example, in the house below, the decor and furnishings give away that the property is dated and hasn't had an overhaul or even a facelift in the last decade.

coving in an old living room

You can see from the green sofa, the vanity cabinet and curtains that the property is dated and the owner hasn't seen any need to get rid of the polystyrene coving all around the room.

However, it takes less than £100 to buy enough alternative coving material to fix the problem.

If you've taken the right steps and discussed an escape route with your family and bought a carbon monoxide detector and some smoke alarms, then why avoid this step?

While it might not seem to be a problem right now, all it takes is an out of control house fire for the plastic to start dripping and burn your skin as it falls from above. When trying to deal with a fire and smoke, this is the last thing you need.

What's So Bad About Polystyrene Wall Tiles?

The material itself, in simple terms, is based on refined crude oil, used in the manufacturing of plastics. This means, it is a flammable material (as are almost all products that are derived from crude oil).

Polystyrene that is used for coving and ceiling tiles has been expanded using a gas, giving it a light and airy feel. It has traditionally been used to act as an insulator between brick cavities and behind plaster. With this type of usage, we needn't be too concerned as there is a non-flammable material covering it. The problem arises when this type of material is used directly on the exposed surface, when it becomes visible to the naked eye.

ceiling tiles made from polystyrene
fire hazard in the hallway

In the event of a fire, these types of materials on the walls and ceilings will begin to breakdown when approaching temperatures of 100C. At this temperature, they emit poisonous gaseous emissions which could itself ignite. Add this to the slow melting of the plastic, dripping onto anything beneath it and you have a very dangerous addition to an already alarming situation.

We are quite shocked that these types of materials are still freely available through DIY stores and to the general public, especially in light of the Grenfell Tower disaster in London from 2017 which claimed over 70 lives.

Alternative Materials To Ensure a Safe Home

The easiest thing to do with tiles, is to take them down. They have almost always been glued on to the ceiling above it with a strong glue, so using a simple wallpaper scraper or similar will do the trick.

The question really is: what is underneath?

More often than not, homeowners have put up these tiles as a cosmetic feature i.e. it's hiding something behind it. So that's where the real hard work comes into it. Are you prepared to address the issue i.e. what the previous homeowner should have attended to properly.

When it comes to coving, it's a bit tricker - especially if one or both sides of the coving has been glued to wallpaper. It's very hard not to rip any of the wallpaper or damage the paintwork. We try and do this so to minimise our works input, but if needed then we'll replace the polystyrene coving with one of the following:

  • Polyurethane Coving
  • Plaster Coving
  • Wallpaper Border

Polyurethane Coving

This is usually our preferred option. The material is a hardened plastic, but is fire rated. The difference being that the polyurethane core will not melt nor drip once exposed a fire.

best polyurethane coving

It is available from all good DIY shops in your area. Try Screwfix, Wickes or Wilkos if your local hardware or DIY supplier doesn't have it in.

new coving after wallpaper stripped

It's lightweight, but tough and easy to apply. The room above shows the new fire rated coving being set in place by nails. Once the product dries, the nails can be removed.

The best known brand is SuperCove and we list the best pricing for them (for a pack of 6)

supercove

Best Price For Polyurethane Coving

Supplier

Price

Size

Delivery

Screwfix

£32.99

6 Pack

No

Selco

£24.23

6 Pack

Yes

B & Q

£34.00

6 Pack

Yes

Note: Make sure you get a fire rated certificate when you buy the coving. Please don't buy from eBay unless you are guaranteed to received one.

Plaster Coving

Plaster coving is the traditional method of coving, but it is much more expensive, much harder to put up and a lot messier. Ideally, this is something you put up at the beginning as opposed to replacing polystyrene coving. It's best to avoid this option if you can.

Wallpaper Border

As long as the removal was done carefully and the wall behind it is still in good condition, then you can probably just put a wallpaper border across the top. This might not be the most elegant of look, but it's the most cost effective. All you need is a wallpaper border to suit your tatstes, some wallpaper paste and an old brush. Easy as 1-2-3!