Every facility faces the devastating peril of fire. Each business entity must evaluate this threat to determine the appropriate countermeasures. Sprinkler systems are one such prevalent and highly effective measure.
Whether by compliance with applicable codes or by conclusion from a risk assessment, many buildings are equipped with an automatic fire sprinkler system. Years of fire sprinkler success have proven that a properly designed and maintained system provides unmatched fire protection for buildings and occupants. Water-based fire sprinkler systems can protect property and provide life safety, but only if they are designed, installed, operated, and maintained properly.
One Size Does Not Fit All
Fire sprinkler system design is based on extensive laboratory testing and principles of fire protection engineering. All sprinkler systems do not provide the same level of protection. Various factors, such as occupancy and storage configuration, determine the overall design of a facility’s system.
Unless your fire sprinkler system was designed specifically for your operation, the protection may not be adequate. If there are any doubts as to the design of your system, you should seek the services of a fire protection engineer.
How to Fail
When operating as designed, fire sprinkler systems are highly reliable. However, like any other mechanical system, sprinkler systems require periodic inspection, testing, and maintenance in order to sustain proper operation. In the rare event a sprinkler system fails to control a fire, the root cause of failure is usually the lack of proper maintenance.
Most serious sprinkler system failures revolve around the water supply. Without the necessary water supply, a sprinkler system is nothing more than a geometric arrangement of hanging pipe.
The importance of a consistent water supply cannot be stressed enough. When you ask yourself, “What can possibly go wrong with the water supply?” it is more about the water control devices than the water supply itself. Sprinkler system control valves can be closed inadvertently by authorized personnel, intentionally by an arsonist, or by a physical failure of the valve. Public water system valves closed for maintenance reasons can also significantly affect the sprinkler system water supply.
Mechanical failure or sediment accumulation in backflow preventers can cause excessive pressure loss. Dry-pipe sprinkler systems are susceptible to internal corrosion and scale, which can clog sprinkler orifices during a fire. The water supply in some regions can cause microbiological influenced corrosion (MIC), leading to pinhole leaks or deposits that can obstruct piping. Obstructions of physical objects in the water supply main are also possible.
An Ounce of Prevention
Preventing and finding system problems before a fire occurs is paramount. The National Fire Protection Association (www.nfpa.org) standard, NFPA 25, offers a comprehensive set of minimum requirements. These inspection, testing, and maintenance requirements should be performed and documented by a qualified person.
You are depending on your sprinkler system at any given time to protect property and life; not giving it proper care is like taking off in an airplane without performing a pre-flight checklist. You might have an incident-free flight, but would you be willing to accept the consequences of failure? The duty of fire protection falls on the sprinkler system, but the duty to maintain the sprinkler system falls on you.
Based in Des Moines, IA, Chad Veach is senior engineer, Home Office Risk Improvement, at EMC Insurance Cos. (www.emcins.com).