The Hidden Dangers Of Your Fire Sprinkler System

by Hai Falor on February 2, 2021
How to Plan a Safer Workplace Now and in the Future

Fire sprinkler systems can save lives and prevent extensive (and expensive) damage to your property. However, if they malfunction or fail to activate entirely, they can create serious problems.

To ensure your fire sprinkler system is operating properly, you need to know the potential hazards, why they occur, and how to avoid them.

Why do fire sprinkler systems fail?

1. Frozen pipes

In buildings located in areas with more intense winters, wet pipe sprinkler systems are susceptible to ice accumulation, which can cause the pipes to expand, crack, and leak.

Even organizations in traditionally warmer climates should be aware of the potential for freezing since an extreme temperature drop is always possible and the pipes are often installed in parts of the building where there is little insulation.

2. Corrosion

Corrosion is usually caused by the buildup of rust from the combination of oxygen and water. Often, cities may add oxygen to municipal water sources as part of the treatment process. While this may make the water taste better, it can also lead to excess dissolved oxygen in your pipes.

In an interview with Buildings, Jeff Harrington, President and CEO at Harrington Group, a fire protection engineering firm, explained, “If you have a significant amount of oxygen and water coexisting inside your steel pipes, you can have corrosion and pitting all the way through the pipe wall in less than five years.”

3. Improper installation

When a building is initially designed and constructed, decisions about the installation of the fire sprinkler system are based on the layout and purpose of the building, as well as the materials in those spaces at that time.

If the building is renovated or if spaces are now being used for a purpose other than the original intended use and the fire sprinkler system was not updated to accommodate these changes, it may no longer be effective.

In addition, if you install workplace design elements or light fixtures without taking into consideration the location of the sprinkler heads, you can accidentally inhibit the sprinkler’s ability to detect the heat (leading to a failure to activate) or block the water from being properly distributed.

4. Wrong system

In some cases, a fire sprinkler system may be perfectly functional and still be a risk for your buildings. This is because not every system is appropriate for every space or building type.

For example, dry pipe sprinkler systems are used in unheated buildings where pipes are more prone to freezing. If you have an unheated parking garage but use a wet pipe system and the temperature drops below 40°F, the pipes may burst, rendering the system ineffective.

5. Lack of maintenance

A report by the National Fire Prevention Association (NFPA) cited lack of maintenance as a leading factor in incidents where the fire sprinkler system failed to activate or where the system was ineffective.

Unlike other building systems like lighting and HVAC, issues with a fire sprinkler system may not be immediately obvious. Since most building managers hope they’ll never need to activate their fire sprinkler system, they can neglect to perform preventive maintenance activities on it.

What are the hazards of a faulty fire sprinkler system?

1. Decreased efficacy

NFPA researchers found that in 4% of cases where a fire sprinkler system was activated, it operated ineffectively. The cause in over half the cases was the water not reaching the fire.

If your system is not functioning properly, it could lead to decreased water pressure, which can limit dispersion. If your fire sprinkler system is installed in an improper location, there could be areas in the building that are too far away from a sprinkler head.

2. Disruption in operations

When a fire sprinkler system operates ineffectively or fails to activate, it allows a fire to spread through the building until the fire department arrives. Once the fire is extinguished, your company’s operations will remain paused while the damage is repaired.

Depending on how long the fire was out of control, the sizes and types of the spaces involved, as well as what assets and equipment were affected, regular operations may not resume for days, weeks, or even months. This can have a substantial impact on your revenue.

3. Water damage

A faulty fire sprinkler system doesn’t just make your organization vulnerable to damage from an uncontrolled fire. It also puts your company at risk for water damage caused by burst or leaking pipes.

Even a small leak can do significant damage if it goes unnoticed. A crack in a pipe 1/8″ in diameter can release 250 gallons of water in a single day. And according to a whitepaper from Chubb, a global insurance provider, the average cost of water damage in a commercial property is $89,000.

How to keep your buildings safe

The good news is you can avoid most issues related to your fire sprinkler systems with regular inspections and preventative maintenance.

Your facilities team should schedule regular inspections of the fire sprinkler system that involve confirming the control valves are open, the gauges are functioning correctly, and there is nothing obstructing the sprinkler heads. The technician should also check for visible signs of damage or possible corrosion.

If a facility tech does see a problem, they should create a service ticket. Even if the issue is small and easily fixed, if it keeps occurring and there is no record of past instances, the facilities team may not realize it is a consistent issue and potentially a sign of a more serious problem.

The facilities team should also partner with an accredited sprinkler inspector to perform more in-depth annual inspections.

During an annual inspection, the inspector will evaluate the entire system. This includes:

  • Calibrating the gauges
  • Making sure the water supply is not obstructed
  • Identifying defective sprinkler heads and rusted pipes
  • Determining if any parts need to be replaced

Be sure to keep records of the results of these inspections in your facility maintenance software system. Missing, incomplete, or outdated records make it more difficult to maintain the system properly. 

Along with conducting regular inspections, the facilities team should also assess the status of other safety-related concerns. This includes:

  • Making sure fire exits are clearly marked and easily accessible
  • Ensuring fire extinguishers are installed within 75 feet of all occupied spaces
  • Checking the smoke and carbon monoxide detectors
  • Testing the fire alarm system

Your facilities team should also consult the inspector for preventative maintenance best practices. By routinely repairing and replacing parts of the fire sprinkler system, you can avoid more serious issues down the road. 

Preventative maintenance protects your system and can potentially save thousands of dollars you would have to spend on a complete system replacement.

While the NFPA certainly listed multiple ways a fire sprinkler system may fall short, it also notes that sprinklers were effective in controlling the fire 96% of the time they were activated. As long as you take the time to understand the possible risks and properly maintain your fire sprinkler system, you can feel confident about it working when you need it most.

Curious what else you can do to keep your facilities safe and in working order? Get your Return-To-Work guide for the latest tips and best practices.


Hai Falor

Hai worked in the corporate real estate division of BB&T for 10 years focusing on facilities management, vendor management, and IT systems before coming to work for iOFFICE. With extensive experience in the IWMS software industry, where he served many years in sales and as a solutions engineer, Hai knows his facilities management stuff.

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