State of Sprinklers

By Barbara Horwitz-Bennett, Contributing Editor October 1, 2005

Designers of fire sprinkler systems today confront many issues: requirements that exceed minimums set by NFPA 13; an abundance of new technologies; and evolving job expectations.

CSE: What are some of the latest trends in the design and specification of sprinkler systems?

HOPKINS: One of the hottest design trends is performance requirements that exceed the minimum prescribed levels of NFPA 13 [Installation of Sprinkler Systems]. Many jurisdictions, including the federal government, are requiring these provisions. Specifically, protection strategies in accordance with light-hazard spacing and density requirements are not being permitted. Instead, minimum design criteria associated with ordinary-hazard occupancies are being applied in areas that have historically been considered light-hazard.

SCHULTZ: The issue of meeting or exceeding code brings up a strong dichotomy that has developed in the area of sprinkler system design and specification. More owners are asking consulting engineers to provide a full design that includes routing and clearing of pipe. For example, several owners require the consulting engineer to design the system and the contractor to list and install the design shown by the engineer. In certain states the engineer is even required to lay out the sprinkler system prior to the issuance of the permit. This approach eliminates the design drawing and reduces the likelihood of the one-sentence specification., i.e., “Thou shall meet NFPA 13 and all applicable codes.” The burden of design lies with the consulting engineer—not with the contractor.

That said, certain states, due to professional registration acts, are going a very different route. In these instances, the contractor is hiring either a P.E. or a certified technician to stamp the drawings. The authority having jurisdiction is looking for the stamp to indicate that the design was done under the supervision of a qualified individual. In these states, the consulting engineer is specifying the level of certification that is required, but the burden of design is transferred to the contractor.

MONIKOWSKI: At the other extreme, unfortunately, we continue to see old boilerplate specifications that do not specify the latest in sprinkler technology. Other specifications are written in detail, but often, the consulting engineer fails to spend the time necessary to get the water supply information and details of local municipality requirements, which is unfair to contractors.

CSE: Has the level of attention to water supply arisen from corrosion problems that have emerged in the past few years?

HOPKINS: Absolutely. And as a result, provisions must be made not only to monitor corrosion, but to prevent it. Besides the installation of corrosion-monitoring equipment, in dry-pipe and pre-action systems, the minimum wall thickness now requires schedule 40. Furthermore, roll grooves are also prohibited to eliminate potential for corrosion. Additionally, some jurisdictions require that the entire system be pitched to drain—even if the pipe and sprinklers are within a heated area. Elsewhere, for wet-pipe systems, recirculating flow-switch testing equipment is required to prevent the introduction of freshly oxygenated water into the system during routine ITM procedures.

CSE: What other general trends are you observing?

MONIKOWSKI: Seismic bracing is being specified more often.

JOHNSON: We’re receiving calls for improved technologies such as CPVC piping and specially listed sprinkler heads and dry systems—in lieu of antifreeze systems.

SCHULTZ: The antifreeze early-suppression, fast-response ( ESFR) sprinkler system is impressive. The industry has had an issue with sprinklers in freezers for years, including problems with the quality of air-moisture content—and corresponding ice plugs—and the inherent problem with in-rack sprinklers in a freezer. The ESFR antifreeze system addresses both of these issues and shows potential in freezers. The limiting factor, as with all antifreeze systems, is the total volume of the system.

CSE: What other kinds of specific sprinkler technologies are jumping out at you?

JOHNSON: ESFR sprinkler heads, low-pressure attic dry systems and concealed residential sidewalls.

MONIKOWSKI: ESFR and special sprinkler heads are both more effective in fighting down fire plumes in storage and high-hazard facilities. They also provide an advantage to the building occupant from a cost and logistics standpoint.

MONIKOWSKI: Other products worth looking into are the combustible concealed sprinkler, the window sprinkler, 300-psi-rated sprinklers and numerous low-flow residential sprinklers.

HOPKINS: One product that comes to my mind is System Sensor’s Zonecheck flow-switch tester for testing devices where discharge of water is not desired. It is particularly effective for systems with additives such as antifreeze or corrosion inhibitors.

Another innovative product that I’m familiar with is Reliable Sprinkler’s DDX valve that can be used for all deluge and pre-action systems or as a low-pressure dry-pipe valve. It eliminates the need for a side-check valve, requires only a single main drain and can be reset externally. Finally, going back to an earlier point, about the importance of corrosion monitoring, Potter offers a station that allows for the easy implementation of a corrosion-monitoring program for a diverse cross section of sprinkler systems. It is designed to simulate conditions within the main or branch line in which it is installed and allow for inspection without impairment of the sprinkler system.

SCHULTZ: Innovations continue to come from the sprinkler manufacturers themselves, and it will be interesting to see what comes out next. In the last 10 years, we’ve seen a technological revolution, including extended coverage heads and attic sprinklers, as Mr. Johnson mentioned. Extremely interesting are the changes developed for NFPA 13 based on this new technology. For example, when testing the attic sprinkler, it was recognized that the old design method didn’t work for steep-sloped combustible roofs and the standard had to adopt new requirements. This came out of tests on a new product questioning an established design concept that had been in the standard for years.

CSE: Speaking of NFPA, what other changes is it considering?

HOPKINS: The NFPA 13 committee is considering adding new requirements for the protection of storage on compact shelving, modifying the requirements for sprinklers beneath exterior roofs and canopies, replacing the area density curves with a single-point design/density area and removing the design area reduction associated with the use of quick-response sprinklers in ordinary-hazard occupancies. In addition, there are numerous proposed definition changes and issues related to the protection of rack storage.

SCHULTZ: It’s interesting that, once again, NFPA proposes to eliminate design curves and use a single-point design. This was overturned on the floor at the last annual meeting, but the committee appears intent on changing the concept that we have used to design for years. If it passes, this will be a major change and eliminate one of the designer’s tools for matching design to water supply.

The last issue Don noted about solid shelving in racks is another subject I take issue with. For those individuals working in the warehouse field, this single issue alone has the potential to greatly impact the industry, as it will change the design of the racks themselves. Additional sprinklers will have to be included within the racks.

MONIKOWSKI: Also on NFPA’s list of considerations are the following:

  • A requirement that, whenever possible, sprinklers be installed on piping after the piping is in place, and that protective straps and caps be removed just before the sprinkler system is placed in service. The idea behind this is to reduce the possibility of damage to the sprinkler when installed by the contractor or damaged by carelessness of other trades.

  • A requirement to add additional signs at the sprinkler risers indicating the location of low-point drains, auxiliary drains and antifreeze systems so that these can be properly inspected and maintained.

  • A requirement that, like dry-pipe systems, pre-action systems be capable of delivering water to the inspector test connections within 60 seconds.

JOHNSON: There’s also a proposal pending to reduce the material requirements on stand-alone sprinkler systems as compared to multi-purpose systems. This reduction in material strength for stand-alone systems could lead to issues with homeowners who believe they are getting a fire sprinkler system that is equivalent to historical standards.

CSE: What is the industry doing to increase fire sprinkler awareness?

HOPKINS: Private sector organizations such as the Society of Fire Protection Engineers, the American Fire Sprinkler Assn., the National Fire Sprinkler Assn., the International Fire Sprinkler Assn. and the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition devote a significant effort to promoting awareness of the benefits of fire sprinkler systems. In addition, the U.S. Fire Administration has, for many years, had initiatives associated with the development of residential fire sprinklers and education of local fire officials and the public. For example, it has supported local programs through grants in which the lifesaving effectiveness of residential sprinklers is demonstrated at meetings and conferences by conducting fire tests.

MONIKOWSKI: We do a series of road shows in various cities that promote sprinklers by introducing new sprinkler and other fire-protection technology.

Also, the Center for Campus Fire Safety continues to push for legislation requiring sprinklers and other fire safety training for all students living in student housing.

SCHULTZ: I believe the initiative has shifted from a proactive stance to more of a reactive stance. The industry is finding it necessary to respond to changing building codes and try to reduce long-established tradeoffs cited in the wake of 9/11, for example. In addition, quality issues that we have brought upon ourselves through recalls and voluntary replacements must be addressed. The bottom line is that the sprinkler industry and its long-standing reputation has been brought into question and we are having to fly in a holding pattern rather than taking a more progressive and active stance.


Don Hopkins , Senior Fire, Protection Engineer, Hughes Assocs., Baltimore

Gary L. Johnson , Fire Sprinkler, Industry Ombudsman, Noveon, Inc., Cape Charles, Va.

Frank Monikowski , Fire Sprinkler, Marketing Manager, SimplexGrinnell, Cranberry Twp, Pa.

Gerald Schultz , P.E. , Principal, The FPI Consortium, Downers Grove, Ill.

Sprinkler Tests for Success

What procedures do experts recommend to ensure proper sprinkler installation? “Blow-back testing provides value to sprinkler contractors to help ensure that water is not introduced into a system with a missing sprinkler or an open joint,” says Don Hopkins, senior fire protection engineer, Hughes Assocs., Baltimore. “And although not required by NFPA 13, it is also advantageous to perform a hydrostatic test in small increments such as 25 psi. This approach helps determine whether there are cracked fittings or fittings with sand holes while minimizing the risk of catastrophic failure at those locations.” Hopkins also recommends flushing the sprinkler system mains to remove metal shavings and oil from the piping, as this helps minimize future corrosion problems.

“Air testing is useful to find leaks that exist immediately after the system is installed,” suggests Gary Johnson, fire sprinkler industry ombudsman with Noveon, Cape Charles., Va. He explains that since air compresses, safety hazards can occur when air is introduced. “Blow-back testing does not pose any safety risks.” he says. “But as the air pressure is increased, significant safety issues arise as early as 15 psi.”

Fire Sprinkler Incentive Act: Prognosis

The Fire Sprinkler Incentive Act, submitted in both houses of Congress earlier this year, is currently being considered at respective committee levels. If approved, this legislation would amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 to classify automatic fire sprinkler systems as five-year property for purposes of depreciation, providing a strong incentive for owners to install fire sprinkler systems—even if they are not specifically mandated by code.

“To have a chance of passing, about 90 more congressmen need to jump aboard,” says Frank Monikowski, fire sprinkler marketing manager with SimplexGrinnell, Cranberry Township, Pa. “Once Congress realizes that this is a bill that is close to tax neutral—and I believe it is—it would have an excellent chance.” Of course, Monikowski points out, if the cost is deemed too high from a tax revenue standpoint, it won’t make it.

“The end result would be the development of a huge retrofit market which would not only save lives, but would spark even more sprinklers in new construction,” says Gary L. Johnson with Noveon, Cape Charles, Va. He goes on to say that there is a pent-up demand for retrofit that is holding off spending dollars until it is known whether this effort will be successful.