Planning Sprinkler Retrofits

Nov. 2, 2006
To avoid unpleasant surprises, get answers to the following questions before embarking on a sprinkler retrofit

More and more local governments are setting deadlines for building owners to retrofit older buildings with sprinkler systems. Renovating existing structures to install a fire-protection system requires considerable planning - there is no such thing as a typical retrofit. To avoid unpleasant surprises, a building owner should get answers to the following questions before embarking on a retrofit:

Does the existing water service have the size, capacity, and pressure to support a sprinkler system? If the existing service falls short in any of these criteria, new water service may be required. New service may entail utility tap-in fees, backflow protection, excavation, patching, or restoring disturbed grounds and structures, plus the cost of the piping. It may be appropriate to explore the use of water-storage tanks, which can be troublesome to locate on developed sites. A fire pump may be required. The pump alone may cost upwards of $40,000, not counting installation and connection. A dedicated rated room or stand-alone enclosure will be needed to house the fire pump.

Will the protected facility have to comply with code requirements that are more stringent than those in effect when it was built? Code may require a standpipe system if a structure exceeds building height and area limits that were adopted after the structure was built. Costs will be roughly $5,000 per floor per standpipe required. Where there are standpipes, a fire pump is usually required to supply them.

What will a sprinkler system cost? Experience in renovation work indicates that prices can range from $1.50 to $5.75 per square foot of protected area. Larger structures benefit from an economy of scale, while smaller ones entail higher per-square-foot costs. Many variables contribute to sprinkler-system cost:

  • Whether the existing building structure can support the physical weight of the system.
  • Whether there is adequate space within the structure to permit efficient pipe routing.
  • Whether the use of exposed piping is permitted.
  • Whether work will have to be scheduled to accommodate building occupants.
  • Whether tenants will have to be temporarily relocated.
  • Whether the local code permits the use of CPVC pipe.
  • Whether installing a sprinkler system will require an upgrade of the existing fire-alarm system or installation of an entirely new fire-alarm system.

What will project planning and management cost? Consulting services consisting of feasibility studies (if required), budgetary-cost estimates, plan submittals for local permitting, construction document design, phasing documents, and follow-up construction administration will not be free. All of the trades involved in installing a system must be coordinated to minimize disruption and delay.

Douglas G. Ellsworth is an associate at architecture and engineering firm Burt Hill ( He can be reached at ([email protected]).

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