When you take your sprinklers for granted, you run the risk of compromising the entire system. Carelessness and oversight can produce corrosion, obstructions, seized parts, and inadequate coverage. Bruce Stebbing, an architect working for the Northwest Territories government (Canada), shares the deficiencies he has witnessed from design debacles to neglected maintenance.
Log Book Lapse
A maintenance log book shows a lot about a facility owner or manager's attitude toward the fire protection system. Without this documentation, you don't know when the gauges were last calibrated or changed, if the fire pump is being run at regular intervals, when the last full trip test of a dry system was performed, or whether a deficiency was corrected or not. For example, evaporation or leaks can cause the fire fighting tanks to have less than the required amount of water if they are not checked regularly. Missing, incomplete, or outdated records make preventive maintenance virtually impossible.
Obstructions are typically a result of carelessness in maintenance or design.
- Sprinklers are often obstructed by bulkheads, structural components, piping, ducts, light fixtures, baffles, and banners.
- Many schools and public buildings are guilty of hanging decoration, ornaments, and artwork from pipes and sprinkler heads. In rental properties, tenants will turn the pipes into clothes hangers.
- Repainting and renovations can impair sprinklers with paint or spackle spilled or brushed on the heads.
- Dust and grease quickly build up if required cleaning is neglected.
- Access to the fire pump, valves, panels, and other components are often compromised in crowed spaces, particularly above cabinets and shelves. Boxes, supplies, and even refuse can block the sprinklers.
Corrosion in the piping or fire department connection often occurs where the pipe has a deformity or slight imperfections. It is important to ensure that the cut ends of the pipe are ground smooth and reamed free of burrs and ridges. Otherwise, these imperfections will be the locations where corrosion takes hold. Over time, severe corrosion will result in leaks where burrs are not ground off properly.
Problems can occur when the purpose of the space or occupancy has changed and the sprinklers have not been modified to suit the changes in the occupancy hazard classification. For example, renovations may be done without redesigning the sprinkler system layout, resulting in inadequate coverage. This is why it is important to know what the original design was and how the building has changed over time.
Another point of concern is the proximity of sprinkler heads to heat sources, such as lights, hot air diffusers, and unit heaters. The temperature ratings for sprinklers in skylights and light wells are sometimes overlooked. Each of these requires a minimum distance for installation or a sprinkler with an intermediate temperature rating.
On rare occasions, I will see something totally surprising that makes me laugh. Once I saw lawn and garden sprinklers mounted on the ceiling of a carport, in an effort to provide coverage for the vehicles. At least the owner had the right idea – he just used the wrong type of sprinklers.
Regardless of how the deficiencies in your sprinkler system came to be, know that they are all code violations. Avoid them with improvements in design, proper maintenance, and regular inspections.
Bruce Stebbing is an architect working for the government of the Northwest Territories, Canada.