Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Sprinkler System Reliabilty

Fire Protection Sprinklers
Are they nothing more than a Panacea to all our fire safety worries?
A Serious Question
How many systems when called on after 15 or more years in service will work correctly?

Recently while installing a Fire Alarm System at a very high end fancy restaurant we had the ultimate nightmare happen.
Water was left in a Dry Pipe Sprinkler System which froze up and burst 5 days after the restaurant opened. And to make matters worse the Fire Alarm never sounded how ever the Burglar Alarm came to the rescue when the water soaked ceiling tiles fell and where picked up by the Motion Sensors. Why? Because an unsupervised hand valve was turned off to the water flow alarm valve which activates the Fire Alarm system.
Woe! Does not the NFPA 13 which governs how sprinkler systems prohibit having any valve in the path to a flow switch unless it is supervised? Yes this is a code requirement that was completely ignored by the sprinkler pipe installers and the technicians who serviced it and the Code enforcement inspector who inspected it.
But wait a minute are not all of these people involved in this sprinkler system suppose to be certified, licensed or otherwise qualified to work on and inspect these system? Yes this is also correct.
So how did this happen well let’s look at how the story started? It starts about 2005 a new restaurant brew pub was built in a very high end community North of Pittsburgh just before the new Pa. Uniform Construction Code UCC came into effect.
The fire system and sprinkler system where installed and passed how ever even back then the systems never should have passed code. Why?
To begin with the Fire system was improperly wired to allow 120 volts ac power to mix with the 24volts dc power of the fire alarm. This happened when a 120 volt bell was installed on the outside of the restaurant to warn passersby the sprinkler system had activated. Incase the phone lines failed.
The restaurant was only open couple years when all of a sudden it closed and went bankrupt. When this happened because improper maintenance of the dry pipe part of the sprinkler system which requires at a minimum of every 2 months have its Drum Drips emptied of condensate where allowed to fill up and they froze. Because of the wiring flaw
The fire system got 120 volt dead short across it and the fire system died the bell never came on and it was not till ice was flowing out the restaurants front door was the problem found.
Fast forward to 2010 A new owner decides to clean and fix up property and build a new 5 star fine dining type restaurant. In doing so all the old problems with fire system and sprinkler system are found and corrected a totally new fire system is installed and all the bad pipes etc in the sprinkler system are corrected and all new inspections including plans are sent for review and approval the township wanting to put behind it that its previous regime of inspectors allowed such bad work to go on in the community.
Well it appears the new ICC certified inspectors and plan reviewers are no better as we now have the newest catastrophe to deal with
How can an ICC Certified Code Enforcement Officer and a Certified Plan reviewer allow this to happen? It is easier than you think.
It comes back to lack of practical hands on experience. Anyone can pick up an ICC book read all the rules and regulations and take the test to become certified with absolutely never putting an eye or hand on a fire system or sprinkler system.
Well what about the hands on experience again just like fire alarms it is taught by those who in too many cases where never taught correctly in the first place.
So as you can see I have an inspected sprinkler system that never should have passed due to the hand valve but that’s not the only problem. As it is missing a critical gate valve to properly do a Back flow preventer test or to be able to properly remove and service it as well as wrong pipe and fittings on dry system in the attic and many other things a normal sprinkler inspector would not do yet there it sits certified and passed.
Well then one would have to ask is this an isolated incident in one community? Unfortunately the answer is no it goes on all the time fire and sprinkler systems being approved with major flaws in them.
A multi million dollar judgment was just paid out by a large national fire/security company after its system failed to protect a large warehouse complex.
So just how dependable will that sprinkler system going to be when called upon. ? Well that requires how well it was designed and maintained.
Sprinkler advocates constantly ballyhoo the fact there has never been a multi fatality in a properly maintained and sprinklered structure of course they do not want to talk about the women who was killed in here homes kitchen when the sprinkler system went off and killed her from the explosion it caused by improperly mixed antifreeze in her system .
This tragedy has been researched and there is now a ban in using antifreeze in residential sprinklers.
First let’s look at how a sprinkler system works and is designed.
While there are several different designs including specialty sprinklers for valuable items storage etc.
The 2 most common water based systems you will find is a Wet Pipe and Dry Pipe system.
In a Wet Pipe System steel or special PVC piping is run thru a structure and the water is held back by special sprinkler pendants which melt and release the water at around 165 Degrees of heat.
Simple enough 1 or more heads will open to douse the fire out completely or hold it a bay till firefighters arrive and can Finnish the job. When the head activates and water starts moving a special paddle switch moves and activates the fire signal be it one bell or a complete fire system. Older systems employed a motorized water gong which sounded on the outside of the building to warn water is moving and are still sometimes utilized but most outside bells are now Horn Strobes attached to the fire system.
In a dry pipe system dry air from a compressor or nitrogen tank is pumped into the piping which looks exactly like the wet system but a special valve is deployed to keep the water in the stem where it comes into the building so that pipes
Will not freeze generally only the small sprinkler room needs heated and where the drum drips are located that catch the condensation which forms in the pipes.
When there is a fire a pendant opens and air is let out and since compressor can not keep up with the water pressure coming in water flows thru the pipes to the fire. These systems are favored in cold climates and can be stand alone or used in conjunction with wet pipe systems. When water rushes thru the pipes some of the water is diverted into a small pipe which contains a plunger type switch which activates when it sees the pressure from the water activating the outside bell or fire system.
So as you can see pretty simple yet for there simplicity they have there problems when not maintained properly and one of the biggest problems is corrosion of the pipes even in a dry system .There is also the problem of algae and slime
When water sits in pipes depending on its acidity level the corrosion can take several years to a couple decades.
Annual testing which checks the flow valves and helps bring fresh water into a system however does not thoroughly change out the water in all of the branches and this is where problems begin.
After this water has been sitting out in the branches of the system it can become so thick to the point it is like syrup I have seen where sprinkler lines have been opened up and it took a coat hanger being shoved by a sprinkler tech up into the pipe to get the excess water left when a system has been drained to be worked on.
Well you would have to ask .Are there not rules and techniques as to how systems are to be maintained to prevent this?
Yes there is there are anti slime and anti rust additives which can be added there are anti corrosion systems as well but ultimately it comes down to the building owner as to the system being properly maintained and the local fire inspectors to check to make sure tests are being done. That said I have customers buildings where a fire inspector has not been in to inspect in over 20years or more.
In some cases risk managers for insurance company’s will come in and demand testing etc. be done
But often Sprinkler systems can and do sit for many years and are never tested or maintained and this is where the problems begin. Even when a system is being maintained it comes down to the sprinkler techs to do so properly which again some do it right many do not look at what happened at the High End Restaurant
Less means more?
One of the very bad practices of building codes has been the fact that a sprinkler system are more often being used to protect people and property instead of a properly maintained Firewall and Fire Doors.
With in the code you are allowed to use a sprinkler system to protect an area instead of making the construction fire proof or resistant. This is all fine and well if the sprinkler system comes on. But what if it does not?
Yes sprinkler systems have failed several times with in the last decade sprinkle head pendants have been recalled due to not opening and allowing water out after heat melted out the element which holds the water back. There are also cases where sprinkler systems have been shut off and no one knows this ended up costing several NY City firefighters there life in an apartment building fire after maintenance personnel shut off sprinklers after a break and never fixed it.
Sprinklers Shut Off? How?
Sprinkler systems like all piping systems have a set of valves to turn the water on ad off. In some areas building codes only require a lock and chain to supervise the valves’ position. Any one with a key or chain cutter can remove the lock and chain shut them off and no body knows unless the system is inspected and it happens all the time.
More than once I have walked into job sites and found sprinklers totally turned off because there was a break or leak and the systems where never fixed I found just this situation at a shopping center once.
Yes valves can be electrically supervised where they are tied to a fire system and a signal is sent to supervising central stations it is logged and noted when system is on or off. But when it comes to open Yoke and Stem valves often the switch mechanism can get shifted and not pick up the valve being closed.
The OYS valve just has a simple notch the trigger arm sits in which can slip out of adjustment and never get triggered.
There needs to be a better system for OYS valves but again the manufacturers are not listening as usual.
Even if there is supervision and the trouble signal is sent it still takes some one to come out and check it again the building owner can ignore it or service tech bypass it.
It is amazing how many buildings I walk into there fire system has a trouble on it and it is still there 6 months to a year later when I visit again. I notify local Fire Authorities when I see fire and sprinkler systems not maintained and again some react immediately and go after the problems and others do not.
So knowing all the problems there are with sprinkler systems and fire system not being installed and maintained properly just how safe do you feel?

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