Fire Sprinkler Systems are extremely complex. The main purpose of these systems is to ensure water is released at the point of a fire’s origin. When correctly done the water will generally extinguish or contain the fire, limiting water damage and fire spread. Smoke often causes more damage to commercial contents than fire or water but many building owners spend more time worrying about water damage from a possible pipe leak.
What all building owners and managers should be most worried about is whether their fire sprinkler systems are being properly maintained so it will function properly when needed. Just as importantly, these sprinkler systems must meet current occupancy needs.
How fire sprinkler systems work
It is important for building owners, especially LROs (building owners, and lease space, but don’t personally occupy it) to know how these systems work. The sprinkler heads are made to activate only where the fire is located to keep it from spreading.
The National Fire Protection Association’s NFPA 13 is considered the bible for fire sprinkler design and installation. Simply put, these systems are designed with occupancies and hazards in mind. The guidelines outline certain types of occupancies and how sprinkler systems should be set up based on that information since fires react differently in each environment.
At one end of the spectrum is Light Occupancy, which is characterized by a traditional white collar, service-based office. There are likely many open spaces with some office furniture, IT equipment, paper, but little highly flammable materials in a light occupancy space. These are also known as Ordinary Hazards.
Moving toward higher risk occupancy classifications are Ordinary 1 and Ordinary 2, which may include warehouses, distilleries and other buildings with more flammable materials. At the higher levels are Extreme Hazard Groups 1 and 2 which may have chemicals, compressed gases and other materials onsite of very high risk for fire.
Most LRO-owned commercial buildings will have different types of occupancies, from restaurants (generally an Ordinary Risk given the presence of equipment that heats up and oils) to clothing retailers and convenience stores with fewer flammable items. Each tenant in that building needs to be designated the correct occupancy and have a fire sprinkler system that is designed for that type of occupancy. For example, there may be more heads quickly activated in a woodworking suite due to the flammable and potentially explosive nature of wood dust.
What happens when tenants change
A Fire Sprinkler System may need to be redesigned whenever a new tenant replaces an older one in a commercial building. If the newer occupancy provides a higher risk for a more intense fire (i.e., more flammable materials), the sprinkler system needs to be updated to provide enough water directed at the proper location to meet the increased hazard. This may be missed prior to the move in of the new tenant but may be revealed during an inspection of the property by a risk services provider like Afirm, a fire department or even a fire sprinkler contractor.
Of course, pre-occupancy inspections do not always happen, because of time, ignorance or a desire by the property owner to save money.
If an occupancy is not properly determined and the system is under designed, a fire may spread an overcome the fire sprinkler system, leading to a larger and more dangerous fire. For example, a unit previously occupied by an office with no storage (Light Hazard) is now occupied by a dry cleaners or woodshop (Ordinary Hazard, Group 2). The end result would be a larger property loss, as well as a larger claim for business interruption.
Plus, when the P&C policy needs renewing, an expensive claim will lead to higher premiums and may even restrict capacity, so that securing the proper policy is difficult. In this scenario the fire sprinkler system provided inadequate coverage, and even with insurance footing the bill, there are short and long-term consequences.
The importance of maintenance
There are many reasons why fire sprinkler systems do not work properly. Often, they have not been maintained or regularly checked. Most fire sprinkler maintenance companies will schedule quarterly, annually, and 5year inspections of the system in every section of a building. It is critical that building owners keep these inspections on their schedule to ensure there is no shortage of coverage given the onsite occupancies.
There are other reasons a sprinkler system may not work:
» The water may have purposely or accidentally been shut off
– This may have been done during fire sprinkler system maintenance and/or tenant improvement. Regardless of why the water was shut off, this can be a disaster were a fire to occur. Building owners may not even be aware of this if a tenant shut off the water somehow or there was an unknown maintenance issue. A central station monitoring company connected to the system or the fire sprinkler servicing company should be required to contact the owner whenever the system is shut off and turned back on.
» Gages are not working
– This can lead to inaccurate readings and a misunderstanding of the status of the fire sprinkler system. These should be tested or replaced every 5 years.
» System is clogged
– This can occur by rust buildup in the pipes, debris entering the system, or for other any number of reasons but will have an adverse impact on the performance of the sprinkler system in case of a fire preventing the natural flow of water at fire access points.
» The water used for the sprinkler system may be old, black, rusty, etc.
– Water left in pipes create rust. The rust may buildup and eventually cause blockage. Regular maintenance will identify this as an issue by releasing water in the system. This type of water may be less effective at fighting a fire. It should also be noted that water housed in a sprinkler system is dedicated only for that purpose. It is often, but not always connected to fire hydrant systems.
Although the focus of this article is on commercial buildings, regular fire sprinkler maintenance is important for large residential buildings like apartment complexes. While the occupancies don’t change in residential buildings when a new tenant moves in, sprinkler maintenance is just as important and should be regularly scheduled to help protect not just the structure but the lives of its residents.
Any building owners or property managers with questions about their fire sprinkler systems should contact the professionals at Afirm. It is a topic that few people are experts on, but Afirm offers the expertise and knowledge to help brokers and agents provide their clients with important information. Knowing the proper occupancy, when to hold inspections and how often maintenance is required in your commercial or multi-family residential apartment building will go a long way to reducing exposure in case of a fire.