Fire sprinkler systems are the best, most economical investment a building owner can make to minimize the damage that might be done by a fire. But the investment of a fire sprinkler system only pays off for the building owner and tenants if the system is properly designed for the building (i.e., a “custom-fit,” rather than “one-size-fits-all” approach). Building owners need to communicate with the designer of the sprinkler system all the situations that affect system design. Once the building is occupied, owners need to be aware of the limitations imposed on the use of the building by the fire sprinkler system, and they need to communicate these limitations to their tenants.
In recognition of the importance of communication between the building owner and the sprinkler system designer, NFPA 13 – Standard for Installation of Sprinkler Systems has adopted a new rule in the 2002 edition, requiring the owner to present to the sprinkler system designer an Owner’s Certificate. It is hoped that in filling out this certificate, better information will be given to the sprinkler system designer and better sprinkler systems will be installed, increasing the ability of the building owner to use the space efficiently and effectively.
The most important information that needs to be conveyed to the sprinkler system designer is the use of the building and its contents, including: the flammability of contents, how high combustibles are going to be stacked, and arrangement of combustibles. Just stating the building is going to be a warehouse is insufficient; a warehouse for storage of metal tools would have a very different sprinkler system than one for storage of fireworks. For most building types, design information for the sprinkler system can be found in NFPA 13. However, a few special types and uses of buildings require that the sprinkler system design criteria be found in other documents. For a list of such buildings and uses, see the NFPA 13 Owner’s Certificate.
The height that combustibles will be stacked or stored in a building is critical to fire protection. The higher the stack, the more intense a fire and a greater water output of the sprinkler system necessary to control the fire. Fire research and testing has shown that a significant change occurs when ordinary combustibles are stacked more than 12 feet in height – important information for the fire sprinkler system designer.
Commodities such as plastics and aerosols burn more intensely than ordinary combustibles, requiring a need to know the quantity and arrangement of any significant amounts of these materials. For a complete list of such commodities, see the NFPA 13 Owner’s Certificate.
Also needed is information on the quality of the water supply. Some water supplies contain corrosive conditions that will affect the long-term maintenance of the fire sprinkler system piping. In addition, there is a condition known as Microbiologically Influenced Corrosion (MIC), where a living microbe in the water, under certain unusual conditions, will eat through the wall of fire sprinkler piping, requiring special treatment.
In conclusion, the use of the building will ultimately be limited by the assumptions made by the sprinkler system designer. Good communication between the building owner and the system designer will give the owner the flexibility to use the building to its greatest potential.
Kenneth E. Isman, PE is assistant vice president of Engineering at the National Fire Sprinkler Association (www.nfsa.org), Patterson, NY.