The Challenges of High-Rise Fire Sprinkler Retrofits

May 1, 2007
Cities are putting new requirements in place for the installation of fire-sprinkler systems in high-rise buildings

By Frank Monikowski and Chris Woodcock

In November 2005, the Houston City Council passed an ordinance requiring that owners of existing high-rises equip their structures with fire sprinklers in the next 12 years. With the passage of this ordinance, Houston joined the list of cities putting new requirements in place for the installation of fire-sprinkler systems in high-rise buildings.

Fire-sprinkler protection in high-rise buildings is challenging; there are many issues and considerations to be addressed. The entire process becomes even more difficult and critical in an existing building. Plus, all of this is further complicated when a building owner or manager initiates a retrofit project to comply with a new law or ordinance that mandates the installation of a fire-sprinkler system within a specified timeframe. In these instances, it's extremely important to start the retrofit-compliance process as soon as possible.

The Water Supply
When fire sprinklers are being installed in a high-rise facility, the first step is to consider the available water supply. The Quincy, MA-based National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) defines a high-rise as a structure that measures more than 75 feet in height (translating to 7 stories or higher). For buildings that are more than 75 feet tall, the newest edition of NFPA 14: Standard for the Installation of Standpipes and Hose Systems requires water pressure of 100 psi (pounds per square inch) at the top of the standpipe. Older buildings with existing standpipes may have been designed according to the older NFPA 14 standard (which required only 65 psi available at the top). This would likely necessitate an increase in the rated pressure of the existing fire pump.

While questions and issues related to the water supply are important and extensive, there are other considerations typically viewed as being even more critical:

  • Will the existing fire-alarm panel handle the new flow alarms, valve-tamper switches, and other electrical devices that need to be added?
  • How disruptive will this installation be to building tenants?

Preparing the Bid Package
Another crucial consideration in the sprinkler-retrofit process is the time it takes to prepare a bid package - and the associated cost. The price tag for developing a bid package can run as high as 25 percent of the total project cost and can take 6 months to several years to prepare.

Building owners often find that the best and most efficient way to complete a project successfully is by working with a large, experienced contractor. An accomplished sprinkler contractor has the ability to work closely with the building owner's team or the property manager to carefully coordinate all activities in the retrofit process. With the ongoing trend toward a higher level of interoperability and integration between fire and life-safety systems, it can also be beneficial for an owner to work with a sprinkler contractor whose capabilities also include fire alarm, fire suppression, emergency notification, and communications systems and service. Through a single-source provider, the sprinkler retrofit can be completed in the context of an overall life-safety solution.

Frank Monikowski is fire sprinkler marketing manager and Chris Woodcock is director, marketing communications, at Boca Raton, FL-based SimplexGrinnell (

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