How is COVID-19 affecting retail, restaurants? Learn about fire, life safety

With consumers frequently enjoying delivered meals and shopping for goods online, brick-and-mortar restaurants and retail structures need to maintain fire and life safety standards

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer June 17, 2020


  • Scott Garrison, principal, Peter Basso Associates, Troy, Mich. An electrical engineer for more than 30 years, Garrison heads up his company’s Commercial and Government Buildings market sector group. He has worked on a range of projects including large corporate headquarters, data centers, casinos, sports and entertainment venues, municipal and educational facilities.
  • Jessica Iversen, PE, Seattle office leader | project engineer, RTM Engineering Consultants, Seattle. As RTM’s Seattle office leader, Iversen Jessica manages a team of engineers and designers working in a variety of market sectors across the country. Her portfolio encompasses design in retail spaces, educational facilities, multifamily residential, restaurants, and and a range of tenant build-outs projects.
  • Bradley D. Williams, PE, vice president, Bala Consulting Engineers, New York City. In his role of vice president of MEP, Williams manages the overall New York office operations and oversees a broad range of projects, encompassing the infrastructure, hospitality, data center and, and corporate markets. His more than 27 years of experience includes projects for high-profile clients like Deloitte, JPMC and Rockefeller Center.
  • Jason Wollum, PE, LEED AP BD+C, retail practice director | senior vice president, Henderson Engineers, Kansas City. Having joined the company in 1997, Wollum is now a senior vice president responsible for the design, management and, and coordination of several programs. He also mentors young engineers at the company.

CSE: What are some of the unique challenges regarding fire/life safety system design that you’ve encountered for such projects? How have you overcome these challenges?

Iversen: Unique to restaurants is the need for fire suppression hoods over the cooking areas. It’s important to keep in mind that these pieces of equipment also need to be provided with a means to shut off the fuel source to the cooking equipment, whether that be through electrical shunt trip breakers or natural gas solenoid valves. In retail, large back-of-house storage areas often drive the sprinkler design, with larger stores having 30-foot racking to rival high-density warehouses.

Wollum: Automation, such as truck and pallet unloaders, is becoming more prevalent in our retail projects. As a result, we are having to specify designs that require greater knowledge of protection design bases and technologies. The old “rules of thumb” for area/density sprinkler protection that we used just a few years ago simply don’t apply today. We have used aspirating smoke detection coupled with the latest suppression sprinkler technology to provide more robust protection in a number of challenging projects.

CSE: In restaurants, what clean agent, aerosol, oxygen reduction or other specialty fire suppression systems have you specified?

Wollum: We have not specified any specialty suppression systems for any of the practice types mentioned. They are simply too expensive. Cooking hood suppression has some newer technologies that use water, not a saponification chemical, for suppression. The kitchen and service areas still use simple wet pipe sprinklers. Sometimes simple really is better.

CSE: How have the trends in fire/life safety changed in retail, restaurant and mixed-use projects?

Wollum: Some warehouse suppression technology is trickling into retail fire suppression to reduce water demand and construction costs. To date most of that technology is proprietary and require full-scale fire testing to be applied to a retailer’s specific storage configuration, but the cost savings are significant compared to NFPA 13 prescriptive design. We now recommend nitrogen inerting for medium to large dry pipe systems to reduce life cycle costs for owners. Flexible wet and dry sprinklers can reduce construction timelines and, in certain cases, eliminate antifreeze and dry pipe systems altogether. On the fire detection and notification side, the control panels can accommodate ever larger numbers of devices and the user interfaces are much more intuitive. Mass notification systems are becoming more common across campuses. I’ve seen discussion and research about using IoT for communication, but these are still a few years from widespread adoption.

Iversen: Especially on the retail side, we have seen projects focused entirely on upgrading fire protection systems and fire pumps based on increased brand safety standards, which sometimes exceed code requirements.

CSE: What fire, smoke control and security features might you incorporate in these facilities that you wouldn’t see on other projects?

Wollum: Cooking hood suppression is unique to restaurants and retail.

CSE: Do you see any future changes/requests to the structural design of these buildings regarding fire/life safety systems?

Wollum: To date, I have not seen structural design impacting fire protection — with the exception of timber construction — and we typically do not work on timber projects.

CSE: How has the cost and complexity of fire protection systems involved with retail, restaurant and mixed-use projects changed over the years? How did these changes impact the overall design process?

Wollum: Because many of our retailers’ products and packaging use more plastics, the protection has had to increase. For example, compare a television from 15 years ago — essentially glass and metal boxes — to today (mostly plastics). As a result, the complexity of fire sprinkler systems for retail has increased. Fortunately, manufacturers have addressed the trend by developing sprinklers capable of providing more water to a fire at lower pressure which reduces the need for fire pumps. In mixed-use, specifically residential occupancies, many new sprinklers are available that allow for wider spacing and better concealment.

CSE: How have changes to codes, BIM and wireless devices/systems impacted fire and life safety system design for these buildings?

Wollum: Code changes are ever evolving. For example, the trend toward sprinkler protection based on ceiling height, not storage height, is gaining acceptance in some retail designs. Engineered sprinkler and alarm design using BIM allows for a much better coordinate design with all building trades and lower costs to owners. When we can tell an owner the exact device count and how many feet of each size of pipe is needed, it puts the contractor bids on an equal footing. Wireless devices are still very limited in the fire protection industry due to the need to have virtually perfect communication between components. Still, there are currently too many glitches in wireless communication to gain acceptance in the life safety profession.