Case study: How the Texas freeze event affected fire sprinklers

The deep freeze in Texas affected many systems, including fire sprinklers and backflow prevention devices

By Jarron Gass May 27, 2022
Courtesy: CDM Smith

In February 2021, Texas experienced a deep freeze that paralyzed a large portion of the state, cutting off power and causing even inside portions of structures to experience freezing conditions. It is estimated that in the state of Texas alone, damages exceeded $100 billion.

A portion of this damage was from fire sprinkler systems and sprinkler equipment, such as backflow prevention devices. While the freezing conditions that affected various facilities were caused by the loss of power throughout the state, consideration should be given for the protection of items like backflow prevention devices. These devices are required for fire sprinkler systems to minimize the chance of cross contamination of water supplies and can be required to be installed above ground near a property line.

Many of these devices are only provided with an insulating blanket or frost-proof encasement. Such considerations could lead to the recommendation for more substantial freeze protection, such as insulated enclosures. It could also lead to a stronger consideration for placing these devices either below ground or even inside of the structures they are intended to serve.

The Texas freeze event is forcing other industries and utilities to take a much harder look at proper winterization standards. It is creating a dialogue that perhaps the fire protection industry should adapt some of the same precautions that oil and gas wells might employ to help deter unwanted freeze-ups.

At a higher level, energy providers have likely learned from this freeze event and may implement changes that can prevent or minimize the effects of freezing conditions on their capacity to provide energy. In much the same way, it is imperative that fire protection systems be examined for ways to implement (even retro-actively) the types of freeze protection and prevention measures that are prescribed in section 16.4 of NFPA 13: Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems. It may make sense that more systems be installed as dry systems, providing the greatest prevention of freeze-ups in the systems.

Other areas might need to be further evaluated for exposure to the outside environment and implement a combination of enhancements such as the insulating of pipe, along with a listed and monitored heat tracing system. The Texas freeze event will also likely trigger evaluations in concert with multiple disciplines (architectural, mechanical, civil) that assess the integrity of existing building envelopes, identify weak points and then implement plans for improvements that mitigate these risks. Areas such as ceiling plenums, exit stairwells and other portions of a building with minimal circulation or access will come under the microscope.

While fire protection failures during the Texas freeze event might not have caused as much damage as general frozen water lines on potable systems or cost as much to repair, they did leave many structures unprotected from the potential fires that they are designed to protect against. The true cost of the Texas freeze event might not be known for some time, but what can be learned from the event is immeasurable.

The small addition to NFPA 13 is a step toward solidifying protection against freezing. Through events such as the Texas freeze, perhaps the next edition of NFPA 13 will further capture these lessons and provide greater protection against freezing so that sprinkler systems can provide proper protection against fire.

Author Bio: Jarron Gass is fire protection discipline leader at CDM Smith. He focuses on fire suppression and alarm design and analysis and water supply analysis.