How to write your firm’s fire protection specifications using NFPA 13

Using NFPA 13 to specify fire protection systems can be done in various ways to ensure code compliance.

By Seth Wood, Johnson Controls, Cranston, R.I. September 7, 2018

Learning Objectives

  • Understand important concepts when creating and/or updating fire protection specifications and how specifications relate to NFPA 13.
  • Learn different ways to write fire protection specifications and select the appropriate products for specifications.

If your fire protection specifications are on a 3- to 5-year (or longer) update cycle, then chances are they are full of obsolete part numbers and technology that have been surpassed by new introductions to the industry. As a specifying engineer, you might have been tasked with updating (or writing from scratch) your engineering firm’s fire protection specification for the first time. This can be quite intimidating if there’s a lack of experience writing specifications, or if the specifying engineer doesn’t have another specification to use as a basis.

There are different ways to write specifications or select the appropriate types of products for your fire protection specifications while considering the format of NFPA 13: Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems. While every state and/or jurisdiction references different editions of NFPA 13, the 2016 edition will be referenced for the purpose of this article. In addition, some companies either package all their fire protection specifications under one section of Division 21, which is based on the numbering setup that is used by the Construction Specification Institute (CSI) and Construction Specification Canada (CSC), also known as MasterFormat. Or some firms are still using 15300, which is based on the numbering setup before CSI was created. This article will use CSI Section 21 13 00: Fire-Suppression Sprinkler Systems, which is a subsection of Division 21.

Updating and formatting fire protection specifications

Many fire protection specifications are written once for the company and then updated every 3 to 5 years, if not longer. Most fire protection product manufacturers are developing new products each year or every few years. As a result, manufacturers are no longer offering the model numbers, part numbers, or products that appear in 3- to 5-year-old specifications. Similar to how NFPA 13 is updated every 3 years, it’s also recommended to update the Division 21, section 21 13 00 specification just as often. This will allow the specifying engineer to convey exactly what should be installed in the building to the fire protection contractor, the owner (or owner’s representative), and the architect. Otherwise, it could result in miscommunication between the parties and likely result in more requests for information (RFI) being issued throughout the construction process.

Comparing Division 21, section 21 13 00 with how NFPA 13 is laid out, there are similarities between the two. While section 21 13 00 can be separated into several subsections for each fire-suppression sprinkler type, NFPA 13 also is divided into multiple chapters and sections related to different sprinkler systems or products. Most fire protection specifications are divided into three parts or categories within the document:

  • Part 1 is typically listed for general items, such as related documents or other referenced sections of the specifications, work that’s included in this particular specification section, and other general items that enable the reader to understand what this specification will entail.
  • Part 2 is typically the main body of the specification because it includes all of the products and the acceptable manufacturers for each product listed within this specification.
  • Part 3 is typically the execution part of the specification that tells the reader, typically the fire protection contractor, how to install certain sprinkler systems or verify existing sprinkler systems.

When looking at how NFPA 13-2016 is laid out, Chapters 1 through 6, with the exception of a few other chapters, could be seen as Part 1 of the specification. Chapters 7 through 22 could be viewed as Part 2 of the specification, and Chapters 23 through 27 could be viewed as Part 3 of the specification. As Part 2 includes the main details of the specification, that’s where we’ll focus our attention.

Chapter 7 covers the requirements of the different system types, such as wet pipe, dry pipe, pre-action, deluge, and combined dry-pipe and preaction systems for piers, terminals, and wharves, etc. Therefore, organizing Part 2 of the specifications into separate paragraphs or subsections covering each system type enables the creation of a master specification that can be customized for any given project. Paragraphs or subsections describing particular systems can be removed when not applicable to a given project. Separate system sections are also helpful because manufacturers have different products that offer the specifying engineer more flexibility over other options or other manufacturers’ options, depending on the system type.

Chapter 8 is the main section of NFPA 13 because it covers the installation requirements for all fire-suppression sprinkler systems. In addition, it also covers all of the different types of sprinklers that are used throughout a building-for example, commercial sprinklers, residential sprinklers, control mode specific application (CMSA) sprinklers, and early suppression fast-response (ESFR) sprinklers.

Because most specifying engineers work on many different types of buildings (commercial, residential, storage, health care, etc.), it is useful to make a list of sprinklers that can be used for many different applications that pertain to each project type. Doing this will allow the engineer to create a master specification that can be reused for each project and updated regularly.

One way to do this is to create a chart within your specifications similar to what is shown in the table below. An important factor to keep in mind is to check with the insurance underwriter for a particular project because they may require a different K-factor, temperature rating, or finish type than what is allowed in NFPA 13.

While NFPA 13 includes a lot of information, as do fire specifications, it’s important to remember to keep specifications as simple as possible. By doing this, and keeping them updated, users are able to reference things quickly and efficiently. One recommendation would be to send specifications regularly (every 1 to 2 years) to the manufacturer representatives that you communicate with to update their section of the specification. After all, the manufacturer knows better than anyone else which model numbers are accurate and which ones are obsolete. In addition, asking for help from the manufacturer ensures specifications will always be up to date.

Mirroring the format of the fire protection specification to an NFPA standard provides clear direction to everyone on the project team. Additionally, this format can be used for any section of Division 21, as well as for systems not included in NFPA 13. 

Seth Wood is the Northeast business development manager at Johnson Controls. Prior to joining Johnson Controls in 2016, Wood worked as a fire protection consulting engineer in Boston for 12 years.