How to Ensure Sprinkler-System Reliability

April 11, 2007

Get sprinkler-system facts and develop a proactive and prescriptive inspection, testing, and maintenance plan to prevent their failure

By Jana J. Madsen

When it comes to neglecting the necessary inspection, testing, and maintenance of water-based sprinkler systems, what's worse: hoping you don't get caught, not realizing you're in the wrong, or simply not caring?

Because the consequences are the same - loss of life, property, and business continuity - all of them are equally damaging. There is no excuse for ignorance and no reason for denial. Routine procedures can reduce your liability and protect tenants/occupants, your building, and your business from the devastating effects of a large-scale fire. [1]

There are many fire protection and detection systems that work in concert to save lives in commercial and institutional buildings today; sprinkler systems are one. They can extinguish a fire while it's small, reducing the amount of loss (both in terms of people and property) that can result from an otherwise uncontrolled fire. In the Quincy, MA-based National Fire Protection Association's August 2005 U.S. Experience with Sprinklers and Other Fire Extinguishing Equipment report, authors Kimberly D. Rohr and John R. Hall, Jr. compare non-sprinklered and sprinklered buildings, and present the following facts:

  • Sprinklers reduce the chances of dying in a building fire by 50 to 75 percent.
  • Sprinklers reduce the average property loss resulting from a fire by 50 to 66 percent.

Given these statistics, it's irrefutable that a sprinkler system can save lives, preserve building architecture, and ensure business continuity - if they work when needed. Rohr and Hall indicate that, in situations when sprinklers systems failed to activate, human error was almost always to blame. To truly fire-ready your facility's sprinkler system, a proactive and prescriptive inspection, testing, and maintenance plan is the best course of action.

The Building Owner's Responsibility
It's difficult to meet expectations when you don't know what they are. You should understand, at a very minimum, what your responsibilities are, according to building code. "Probably only between 10 and 25 percent of owners are actually aware of the requirements," says Cecil Bilbo, Jr., director of technical services, National Fire Sprinkler Association, Patterson, NY. This knowledge comes from more than a quick scan of the National Fire Protection Association standards - although it is a good place to start.

Because requirements for inspection, testing, and maintenance may vary by city, county, or state, it's important to check with the authority having jurisdiction [2] to gain a better understanding of what's necessary in your area. One thing that remains consistent throughout the United States, however, is the fact that the ultimate responsibility to perform necessary maintenance and regular testing and inspections falls on the building owner.

Constructing a Maintenance Plan
To revise an existing maintenance plan or write a new one, start by auditing existing procedures and creating an inventory of fire-protection systems. Every system component should be included in a searchable database. "All systems and devices should be uniquely numbered and identified," says Jeff L. Harrington, president, Harrington Group Inc., Duluth, GA. "For each device, the inventory should include the name of the manufacturer, the date of manufacture, the model number, the size, and the rating, if there is a rating (such as gallons per minute, pounds per square inch, or voltage/amps)." Consolidating this information in a database simplifies recordkeeping and makes it easier to audit work completed by in-house technicians and contracted workers.

A list of the tasks required by code should also be included in the plan. Chris Jelenewicz, engineering program manager at the Bethesda, MD-based Society of Fire Protection Engineers, provides additional advice: "[A thorough plan] would contain all the testing frequencies for all systems. It would determine who was going to be doing the inspections and whatever else needs to be done. It should also have a way to evaluate test results that are abnormal." For example, if facilities professionals discover an unusual static pressure reading during a sprinkler-system test, they will know what steps to take and/or who to call.

If you're not up to the task of constructing a plan for your facility(s), a qualified fire protection professional can lend assistance. [3]

Know the Code
Chapter 9 of the 2006 Intl. Fire Code requires water-based sprinklers to be maintained in accordance with NFPA 25, Standard for the Inspection, Testing, and Maintenance of Water-Based Fire Protection Systems. The standard provides the minimum requirements for the tests, inspections, and routine maintenance that should be performed and how often. However, some states or cities may mandate more frequent inspections.

Recommended actions vary according to the type of sprinkler system (e.g. wet pipe, dry pipe, or pre-action). Chapter 5 of NFPA 25 prescribes necessary actions regarding gauges, valves, alarm devices, pipe and fittings, sprinklers, hangers and seismic braces, and more. The frequency of maintenance, testing, and inspection activities for these devices ranges from weekly to every 5 years or longer. NFPA 25, Section 5.2.5 also recommends that buildings with wet-pipe systems be inspected (i.e. windows, skylights, doors, ventilators, unused attics, roof houses, etc.) annually to ensure that sprinkler piping will not be exposed to freezing weather conditions. For a summary of the sprinkler-system inspection, testing, and maintenance requirements in NFPA 25, see the chart below.

Summary of Sprinkler System Inspection, Testing, and Maintenance
Item Activity Frequency
Gauges (dry, pre-action, and deluge systems) Inspection Weekly/monthly
Control valves Inspection Weekly/monthly
Alarm devices Inspection Quarterly
Gauges (wet-pipe systems) Inspection Monthly
Hydraulic nameplate Inspection Quarterly
Buildings Inspection Annually (prior to freezing weather)
Hanger/seismic bracing Inspection Annually
Pipe and fittings Inspection Annually
Sprinklers Inspection Annually
Spare sprinklers Inspection Annually
Fire department connections Inspection Quarterly
Valves (all types) Inspection Refer to NFPA 25 Table 12.1
Alarm devices Test Quarterly/semiannually
Main drain Test Annually
Gauges Test Annually
Antifreeze solution Test 5 years
Sprinklers - extra-high temperature Test 5 years
Sprinklers - fast-response Test At 20 years and every 10 years thereafter
Sprinklers Test At 50 years and every 10 years thereafter
Valves (all types) Maintenance Annually or as needed
Obstruction investigation Maintenance 5 years or as needed
Low point drains (dry-pipe system) Maintenance Annually (prior to freezing) and as needed

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Using In-House Resources
Not all of the actions outlined in NFPA 25 must be completed by a certified fire protection professional. "Typically, the shorter the frequency, the less complicated [the task] is and the higher the potential for the owner to do it himself," says Roland Huggins, vice president of engineering and technical services, American Fire Sprinkler Association, Dallas. The size of the facilities management team and its workload, skill, and proficiency - as well as the complexity of the sprinkler system [4] - will determine whether it's best to use in-house staff for some of the work or to hire a contractor.

Visual inspection of pressure gauges and control valves are two examples of the work your in-house staff can perform. "The No. 1 reason that fire-protection systems don't work when they're supposed to is that someone has shut a valve and hasn't reopened it," says Bilbo. A facilities manager can visually check to see that the control valve is open, free of obstruction, and appears to be in operating condition. [5]

Having professionals on staff who are familiar with the fire-sprinkler system has numerous advantages. If there is inadvertent activation, a knowledgeable in-house staff member can shut down the system quickly to minimize water damage. Additionally, you are less likely to be taken advantage of when contracting work out. Even a limited knowledge of the system and what's required will help you discern when a contracted professional's work is incomplete, poorly documented, or not in compliance with the building code.

Additionally, in-house staff can keep a watchful eye on conditions that may compromise the effectiveness of a sprinkler system. For example, items should not be stacked high enough to obstruct the sprinkler's spray path; storage items should be kept at least 18-inches below a sprinkler. Fire sprinklers should never be painted, nor should they serve as a means to hang things.

Hiring a Contractor
NFPA 25 simply states that inspection, testing, and maintenance should be "performed by personnel who have developed competence through training and experience." State requirements are rarely so vague. Depending on state or local codes and ordinances, it may be required that only licensed professionals perform tests and inspections. [6] Any work that requires hands-on testing is best left to professionals. "Things can go wrong during those tests, and maintenance departments aren't prepared for a malfunction of a fire-sprinkler system. You need a professional with some experience," says Bilbo.

Regular inspection and testing aren't the only times you should seek out the services of a fire protection engineer or contractor. When building use is altered, water supply changes, building revisions are made, or removal of a heating system occurs, it's necessary to re-evaluate whether the current sprinkler system is still adequate. "If a floorplan has changed or the fuel loading was changed in a certain area, or the occupancy of the area has changed significantly, it could have an effect on the way the fire-suppression system operates," says Jelenewicz.

The RFP should define the level of certification desired for the individuals and firm bidding on the work. And, if the job is awarded, this same requirement should be written into the contract; if not maintained, it's terms for cancellation. A well-written RFP will ensure that the contractor you hire is capable of servicing your needs in compliance with code requirements. To accurately gauge the competency of the contractor, seek out a third party to review the proposal.

The contract should clearly define the scope of work to be completed and the requirement that inspections and testing be performed in compliance with the requirements of NFPA 25 and all applicable area building codes.

Building owners should be leery of service companies selling annual inspections. "These days, there is no such thing as an annual inspection. Because of the many different requirements for the many different systems, there's a need to look at the system and ensure it's in operable condition more than once a year," says Bilbo.

Recordkeeping is a Must
Part of any good maintenance plan is recordkeeping. "If it's not in writing, it never happened," says Huggins. It's important for the building owner to retain documentation of inspections, testing, and maintenance [7] - what was done and by whom, when it was done, and what the results were. According to NFPA 25, Section 4.3.1, all records should be made available to the authority having jurisdiction upon request.

NFPA 25 also recommends that the original documents for water-based fire-protection systems be retained for the life of the system. This data (such as shop drawings, acceptance documentation, etc.) provides critical information about what systems were installed. This knowledge is extremely helpful when renovations or alterations to the building or sprinkler systems are performed later. "Thorough documentation is extremely important, and it's one of the things that is often absent or incomplete," explains Harrington.

Contracted professionals should always provide you with electronic or hard-copy documentation of the tests and/or inspections that were completed. Don't just trust that the work or the records are complete - review the information in detail.

The Consequences of Inaction
If sprinkler systems and other fire-protection equipment are not maintained and inspected regularly, the risk of loss of life and property, injury, and business interruption escalate significantly. While these are the most obvious consequences of noncompliance, the list of other ramifications is just as frightening. If a fire erupts, causing injury or loss of life, and lack of maintenance is deemed the cause of fire-sprinkler system failure, legal action is sure to ensue. "Without a doubt, if there is [fire] injury or a death in a facility, the lawyers are definitely going to take a look at your inspection records to see if your building was tested properly," says Jelenewicz.

It's important to understand what your insurance company expects with regard to inspection, testing, and maintenance of fire-protection systems. According to Jelenewicz, your insurance company could have additional requirements above and beyond what NFPA 25 mandates. Make sure you are in compliance - or face the consequences. "The risk is [that] you may not see any money from your insurance company if you have a loss, based on inadequate maintenance," explains Bilbo. While sprinklered buildings often receive reduced insurance premiums, the penalty for lack of maintenance is often higher insurance rates, according to the National Fire Sprinkler Association.

The best way to avoid the risks related to noncompliance is to meet the requirements noted in NFPA 25, your state/local building code, and insurance policy, and to retain documentation as proof.

Jana J. Madsen ([email protected]) is managing editor at Buildings magazine.

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