A Texas-sized Sprinkler Installation


The motto of the University of Texas at Austin is: “What starts here changes the world.” While this phrase refers to UT's success in education, research and athletics, it could just as easily allude to the university's leadership in dormitory fire protection. The school just completed a six-year program to install sprinklers, as well as address other life safety issues, in all of its residence halls.

And that's no small task at one of the largest universities in the country. UT's dorms house approximately 7,000 students during the academic year. But until 2000, none of them contained fire sprinklers. In the late 1990s, the Texas state fire marshall (SFM) declared a mandate for all state-owned high-rise residences to employ sprinkler systems. While the majority of UT's dorms are low-rise, one dorm complex, Jester Center, consists of a 14-story tower and a 10-story tower.

Housing nearly 3,000 students, 866,000-sq.-ft. Jester Center is said to be the largest college dormitory in America. Besides its role as a dorm, the building also contains classroom and assembly space, is open year-round and is one of the few dorms on campus that houses students during the summer. Such a high-profile building at a high-profile university naturally grabbed the attention of the SFM. “The big residential high-rise on the radar screen was Jester,” says Warren D. Bonisch, P.E., engineering manager/vice president with the Dallas office of Schirmer Engineering Corp.

But the SFM didn't only target Jester. It wanted fire safety upgraded at all state dorms. UT hired Schirmer to perform a campus-wide life-safety survey, which included reports on all of the university's dorms. According to Bonisch, there were multiple problems with the dorms in terms of exiting, fire alarms and fire-rating separations. “What we came up with was sprinklering the buildings as a counterbalance to those problems,” he says.

“The regulators really want to see sprinklers, and they'll forgive a lot of things if you sprinkler a building,” says Randy Porter, senior associate director of facilities for UT.

Not only would sprinklers appease the SFM and offset other life-safety discrepancies, Schirmer also saw them as the most cost-effective solution. As such, UT embarked on a six-year plan to sprinkler all of its dorms—starting with the Jester Center.

The SFM gave UT 18 months to install sprinklers in the building, and an initial challenge for designers and the school was determining how to best use this time. Closing the entire facility meant that 3,000 students would be displaced. In addition, because the building is in use year-round, performing all the work in the summer wasn't an option either; one of the towers is used for summer orientation and the other is used for summer conferences. Rather than inconvenience summer guests—students or otherwise—who are only at the facility for a few days, UT officials thought it better to put students who are there for nine months out—but only for one day at a time (three days total). So, the school took the approach of completing sprinkler piping installation in six to seven rooms per day.

To accomplish this feat, even more innovative thinking was required, particularly when it came to the material type for the piping. A steel piping system would mean taking multiple floors—at approximately 100 students each—off-line at once. Instead, Schirmer Engineering suggested using CPVC piping. Quick installation, lower cost and the fact that its solvent cement joining system didn't require a blowtorch or heavy equipment were key considerations in going with the plastic solution. In addition, the chosen sprinkler systems were lighter and would therefore be easier to move around the site.

However, UT officials were initially skeptical of the material. Bonisch notes that the university has a 100-year building policy with its buildings, meaning that everything installed should theoretically last 100 years, and they were concerned that CPVC didn't have the longevity of steel. “When you look at a piece of steel in your left hand and a piece of CPVC in your right hand, you're not sure about [the latter] lasting 100 years,” he says. Not only that, but a CPVC piping solution has only been available for a couple of decades, obviously a much shorter time span than steel, so there were no long-term project examples to point to.

In the end, the tight schedule and Schirmer's past success with CPVC were enough to convince UT to take a chance on plastic. Also, unlike at other schools, the cost of the project was augmented by the residents' boarding fees instead of state funding, so university officials were very conscientious of finding the most cost-effective solution.

The CPVC product is geared toward light-hazard residential environments, so while this material was installed in resident rooms, certain areas, such as trash rooms, machine rooms, assembly space and closets, were still required to use steel piping. As such, threaded transitions were needed between steel and CPVC piping. Porter notes that if the connections are tightened too much, the CPVC can split and cause leaks. Luckily, even with approximately 250,000 lin. ft. of piping, 10,400 sprinkler heads and approximately 50,000 joints, minimal leaks have been found thus far.

The installers, thanks to the project's work-scheduling method (see “Sprinklers While You Wait”), were able to put all of the piping in place in 11 months, much faster than the 18-month window provided by the SFM. In addition, Schirmer designed the system to utilize the building's existing standpipe system, thus saving money on vertical risers.

All the rest

While Jester Center was the largest project in the six-year plan, it was just the beginning. And unlike Jester, the remainder of UT's on-campus dorms—all low-rise—were not open year-round and therefore didn't need to adhere to the same type of installation schedule. Installers had 24/7 access to the unoccupied dorms during the summer months, so they could work around the clock without disturbing anyone. This, along with the fact that the facilities department did not want to install protective soffits in these buildings (as was done with Jester), led to the decision to go with steel piping.

Still, like Jester Center, these dorms had scheduling challenges of their own. One of the most significant, Bonisch says, was getting a contract with the university to do the work, getting the project approved, getting it bid and awarded, and reviewing all the submittals so that the contractor could start the work on the first day of a dorm being vacant; in some cases, there was only a 60-day window in which to install the sprinklers.

While the majority of the dorms ended up using steel piping, UT reverted back to CPVC for two dorms at the end of the six-year project—a 200-person building and another six-building complex that also houses 200 people. The buildings were only two stories, one reason they were left until the end of the project, and both may eventually be torn down to make room for new dorms.

Another reason UT saved these buildings until the end of the project was that they were to be connected to a new campus-wide, high-pressure dedicated fire main, a separate ongoing project that will supply water for sprinklering throughout UT's various buildings while minimizing the number of fire pumps on campus. This was a design goal for the dorms: to use as few fire pumps as possible. As such, most of them don't have individual fire pumps; in one area of campus, according to Porter, nine individual buildings are serviced by one fire pump. While this might spark some initial concern, he points out that it's unlikely that more than one building would experience fires simultaneously. “If you've got multiple buildings on fire, you've probably got other problems too.”

Finish line in sight

Bonisch noted that he met recently with the SFM, and the final hydrostatic test with the last sprinkler system was performed successfully. In the end, the project cost totalled $8,661,000 and encompassed 18 dorms.

This fall, much—OK, all—of the university community will be concerned with whether its beloved Longhorn football team can live up to last year's national championship squad, but one thing it can boast for certain is that it was able to complete an ambitious six-year residence hall sprinklering project that will serve as an example to other institutions of higher learning. What starts here can indeed change the world.

Sprinklers While You Wait

A smart sprinkler installation schedule for the University of Texas at Austin's Jester Center allowed installers to complete the system well ahead of schedule with minimal inconvenience to the building's 3,000 residents.

The plan called for six to seven rooms to be vacated per day. Students were instructed to move their belongings to the middle of the room—to prevent potential damage from the installers—and vacate their rooms from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. The installers had an extra incentive to get the job done quickly, as UT would charge a large per-day penalty if students weren't able to return to their rooms by the end of the day. While some students needed to be woken up, the plan went smoothly for the most part. In the end, the sprinkler contractor didn't incur any “late fees.”

Installers had to enter the room three times on three separate days: once to drill holes for the piping, once to install the piping and once to install a steel soffit. This last measure was put in place to prevent vandalism to the pipes, as CPVC is more susceptible to damage than steel. One obstacle was the fact that installers weren't able to alter the existing ceilings in Jester Center's dorm rooms. According to Warren D. Bonisch, P.E. with Schirmer Engineering, there was a very small tolerance with how far the sprinkler heads could be placed from the ceiling, and if the sprinkler system did touch or connect to the ceilings, the ceilings would have needed to be abated. Luckily, the team was able to design around this problem by installing the sprinklers without having them touch the ceiling, thus saving considerable money on abatement.

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