Updates, changes to NFPA 13

Nonresidential buildings have automatic fire sprinkler systems to mitigate fires, minimizing the potential for death and property loss. This looks at the current edition of NFPA 13 (2013) and reviews major changes to the 2016 edition.

By Mark Jason Aaby, PE, Koffel Associates Inc. September 21, 2015

Learning objectives

  • Illustrate NFPA Standard 13 and how it affects fire-suppression sprinkler design.
  • Plan design and specifications using NFPA 13, based on the authority having jurisdiction’s adoption of the code.
  • Review a few changes to NFPA 13-2016.

A properly designed and maintained sprinkler system is one of the most effective fire protection strategies to virtually eliminate loss of life and limit property damage resulting from fire. Oftentimes driven by fire and life safety codes, sprinkler systems protect buildings and structures throughout the United States and throughout much of the world. NFPA 13: Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems, has been the longstanding benchmark for the design and installation of automatic fire sprinkler systems.

When interpreting NFPA codes and standards, an important distinction to make is the difference between an installation standard and an occupancy code. An installation standard indicates how something must be done while an occupancy code indicates what must be done.

NFPA 13 is an installation standard. It does not specify which buildings or structures require sprinkler protection. Rather, once sprinkler protection is required, it provides the requirements for the design and installation of the system. Building and life safety codes are typically the occupancy codes that define which buildings or structures require sprinkler protection. Insurance requirements may be another driver for NFPA 13 compliance.

2013 edition

While the 2013 edition of NFPA 13 represents the most current edition of the standard, it may not necessarily be the version that is in widespread use throughout the United States and beyond. For those jurisdictions that still adopt the 2012 edition of the International Building Code (IBC), NFPA 13-2010 applies by reference. For those jurisdictions that have adopted the 2015 edition of the IBC, NFPA 13-2013 applies. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services will soon move from the 2000 edition of NFPA 101 to the 2012 edition of NFPA 101, meaning the referenced edition of NFPA 13 will go from the 1999 edition to the 2010 edition.

Most federal government agencies such as the Dept. of Veterans Affairs and the Dept. of Defense, to name a few, adopt the most current editions of NFPA codes and standards. So NFPA 13-2013 generally applies. On the global front, many Middle Eastern countries apply the 2015 edition of NFPA 5000: Building Construction and Safety Code. In this instance, if the 2015 edition of NFPA 5000 is being used then NFPA 13-2013 applies.

The 2013 edition of NFPA 13 represents current sprinkler system trends, and up until the point when the NFPA standards council releases the 2016 edition, the 2013 edition is considered best practice when designing and installing sprinkler systems. On occasion, there are key technical issues that materialize between standard cycles and cannot wait for the full standard change process to be addressed. Such matters are brought before the appropriate technical committee and acted upon, with a technical interim amendment (TIA) being issued by NFPA when deemed necessary. TIAs are considered part of the standard, and automatically becomes available for public input for the next edition of the standard. TIAs are an important part of documenting what is state of the art in current technology and achieving best practice when using the standard.

It is important to note, and the scope statement makes it clear, that the standard provides the minimum requirements for satisfactory performance of the sprinkler system during a fire. The level of protection afforded by a sprinkler system can be increased through the use of additional fire protection strategies, such as supplemental supervisory signaling systems.

The standard is the result of several NFPA 13 technical committees who oversee the development process of the standard by spending countless hours reviewing proposals for new or revised criteria, research findings, and new initiatives, with the overall goal of continual improvement of the standard. While it is not the intent of this article to review changes that were made to the 2010 edition, changes to several technical requirements as well as the reorganization of several chapters were made.

2016 edition updates

At this point, the NFPA standards council should have issued NFPA 13-2016. As part of the last phase in the revision cycle, the standard went before NFPA membership for approval at the June 2015 NFPA Conference & Expo in Chicago. Assuming approval of the second draft document, here is a look at a few of the changes that we will see in the 2016 edition of NFPA 13. Refer to an article recently published in “NFPA Journal” titled Big + Bigger, written by Jesse Roman, for additional information on the topics below.

Commodity classification: A significant change involves a complete revision to the long-standing commodity classification tables in the Chapter 5 Annex. While the commodity classes (i.e., Class I-IV and Group A-C plastics) in Chapter 5 have not changed, the examples of the various commodities classes in the Chapter 5 Annex tables have been updated to reflect what is being stored in the modern-day storage facility. The driver for the change was to recognize that, over the years, materials have evolved from wood- and metal-based to plastics, which represents significant changes to the building fuel load. This is an important change in that users of the standard who design or evaluate warehouse sprinkler systems often refer to the commodity class examples contained in the tables to determine a suitable sprinkler protection scheme.

Exposed expanded Group A plastics: A new protection scheme for exposed expanded Group A plastics in racks has been added in Chapter 17. Exposed expanded Group A plastics present a unique fire challenge in that the products have extremely high heat-release rates, are stored exposed (as opposed to in cardboard packaging that helps retard fire growth when wetted), and are common in today’s marketplace. Driven primarily by the NFPA Fire Protection Research Foundation project findings, the new protection scheme centers on the use of a specific ceiling sprinkler in combination with vertical fire barriers within the racking system. As past editions of the standard have not included a protection scheme for exposed expanded Group A plastics, the new protection scheme in the 2016 edition should be a good addition to the standard.

Cloud ceilings: A change driven by research results conducted through the NFPA Fire Protection Research Foundation and the Academy of Fire Sprinkler Technology is the development of cloud ceiling sprinkler design criteria. Cloud ceilings are floating ceiling panels of various shapes and sizes, oftentimes used for aesthetic purposes to hide various building utility equipment at the upper ceiling level. The suspended ceiling arrangements present problems as the degree in which they hinder sprinkler spray-pattern development has not been fully understood until recently. Absent specific criteria for cloud ceiling arrangements, sprinkler protection has historically been provided above and below cloud ceiling arrangements. Starting with a new definition for cloud ceilings in Chapter 3, for the first time the standard will provide design criteria for which sprinkler protection may be omitted above cloud ceiling arrangements. While the new criteria should be referred to for specific cloud ceiling arrangements, an example from Table permits openings between ceiling panels or ceiling panels and walls to not exceed 1 in./ft of elevation between the floor to the cloud ceiling, without having to put sprinklers above cloud ceiling panels. Additionally, if sprinklers are omitted above cloud ceilings, the new design criteria provides requirements for the sprinkler types and spacing within the cloud ceiling arrangement (see Table 1).

Metric conversions: In recognition of the ever-increasing global application of the standard, metric units have been revised to more accurately reflect the metric nominal pipe sizes and measurements used abroad. The intent of the change was to make the standard more usable for those who apply the metric systems, as well as to provide values that are in alignment with products available for use in sprinkler systems, such as pipe diameters.

Drop-out ceilings: Drop-out ceilings are a suspended ceiling system consisting of panels that are heat-sensitive and fall when exposed to heat. Sprinklers have been traditionally located above the panels, so when the panels fall, the sprinkler activation or sprinkler discharge is unaffected by the panel. The requirements for drop-out ceilings have been expanded to permit specific ceiling materials referred to as membrane products. Certain membrane products have been designed and tested so that the seams fail early enough in the fire growth as to not affect the sprinkler activation or discharge, much the same as drop-out ceilings.

Sprinkler-protected glazing: Building code officials have historically permitted the use of sprinkler-protected glazing in various building locations such as atriums and exterior walls. However, previous editions of NFPA 13 have not provided installation criteria for such sprinkler systems. The 2016 edition now contains prescriptive criteria for sprinklers used in combination with glazing as an alternative to a required fire-rated wall or window assembly.

These are just a sampling of some of the changes within NFPA 13-2016. While in some project cases it may be some time before the 2016 edition of NFPA 13 will be applied, it is important for users of the standard to be aware of the current trends and criteria. In the case of the 2016 edition, having knowledge of the new commodity classifications or cloud ceiling criteria may benefit a given project, as will the knowledge of the change in metric conversions for those projects employing the metric system. In such cases, the authority having jurisdiction should be consulted to ensure that the new criteria will be accepted.

Changing standards via a NITMAM

Changes to NFPA 13 were made in June 2015 via a notice of intent to make a motion (NITMAM). As a standard nears the final stages of the NFPA standards development process, a notice of intent to make a motion (NITMAM) may be submitted by anyone in an attempt to change the work of the technical committee before the document is issued by the standards council. An NFPA motions committee reviews and certifies each NITMAM, at which point the motion becomes a certified amending motion (CAM).

CAMs are presented at NFPA technical meetings for final vote. Eight CAMs involving the 2016 edition of NFPA 13: Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems second draft were brought before committee membership at the June 2015 NFPA Conference & Expo in Chicago. The CAMs involved proposed new text for air venting of wet-pipe sprinkler systems using metallic pipe, modifications to requirements for sprinkler protection in elevator hoistways and machine rooms, proposed new text for sprinkler-protected glazing, proposed new text for ferrous hanger rods, and further revisions to Table Manufacturing Standards for Underground Pipe.  

Six of the CAMs either failed floor action or were not pursued by the person(s) who made the motion. The CAM involving the removal of the proposed new text for ferrous hanger rods and the CAM involving further modifications to Table Manufacturing Standards for Underground Pipe both passed floor action.  

Mark Jason Aaby is a manager at Koffel Associates. He is a member of NFPA and Society of Fire Protection Engineers, has more than 18 yr of fire protection engineering experience, and serves on multiple NFPA technical committees, including the Technical Committee on Sprinkler System Discharge Criteria.