Technology in fire sprinkler systems
Selling the idea of preventive safety to the public remains a challenge the world over. Most people maintain the attitude ‘it won’t happen to me’ – be that a vehicle accident, electric shock or a fire in the home.
Those building a new home or remodelling will generally give more consideration to the kitchen bench-top material or the growing passion for media rooms than to installing a fire protection system.
On the flip side there is an enormous opportunity for the plumbing industry globally if it can expand the market for residential fire service installations.
Although fire sprinkler systems have been in extensive use for many years in commercial applications, it is only in more recent times that the technology has been used to any extent in homes.
According to the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition (HFSC), more than 4,000 people die from fire in the US on average each year, and 80% of fire deaths occur in residential properties.
“Although residences have by far the highest fire risk, sprinkler installations in homes lag far behind other applications such as hotels, hospitals and high-rise offices,” HFSC chairman Gary Keith says.
“HFSC is working to debunk common myths about sprinklers, including their likelihood of accidental discharge and high costs. Recent technology developments have made sprinklers more affordable and easier to install in homes. Nationally, on average, they add between 1% and 1.5% to the total building cost in new construction, and they can help to cut the cost of homeowner insurance premiums.”
Keith says about 90% of fires are contained by the operation of just one sprinkler, and they use only a fraction of the water used by fire department hoses. Modern residential sprinklers are also inconspicuous and can be mounted flush with walls and ceilings.
“As yet there are no State-wide mandatory requirements for the installation of residential sprinklers. But some municipalities, fire protection districts and counties have passed ordinances. Scottsdale in Arizona passed an ordinance about 20 years ago and more than half the homes (about 50,000) are protected with sprinklers. National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) national model codes such as NFPA 101 Life Safety Code include sprinklers in the 2006 edition. Eventually, as States adopt this and future editions of this code, it is anticipated that sprinklers will be required in new homes at the State level.”
Julius Ballanco, president of JB Engineering and Code Consulting, and also president of the American Society of Plumbing Engineers, says there is a growing movement in the US to mandate residential sprinklers, and the main driving force is life safety.
“The fire service in the US is supporting efforts to require residential sprinklers, partly because there have been cutbacks in the service, and there are fewer volunteer firefighters,” Ballanco says.
“Fire insurance in the US remains relatively inexpensive for a home, but there is still a payback on the lower insurance costs when you sprinkler a home. It is estimated a sprinkler system will pay for itself in seven to 15 years, depending on the size of the home.”
He says the industry has been able to reduce the cost of a residential sprinkler system using NFPA 13D. This Standard has options for the design of a residential sprinkler system that is permitted to be part of water distribution system plumbing. The cold water piping is sized slightly larger to accommodate the sprinkler system, and when a connection to a plumbing fixture is required, the pipe branches off to serve the sprinkler.
“The other option is to install a two-pipe system, where there is a plumbing water distribution system and a sprinkler piping system.
“Sprinkler manufacturers have been helpful in providing new sprinkler designs, new hangers and new fittings to accommodate residential sprinklers. There is a variety of recessed sprinklers that are hidden in the ceiling space, and the only thing showing is a cover plate in a decorative colour.
“These new fittings accommodate the installation of multi-purpose piping systems. CPVC used in a sprinkler system has a different outside diameter than the CPVC used in cold water distribution systems, so there are fittings that allow the smooth transition between the two different size pipes.
“New hangers space the piping the correct distance off the joist to enable the sprinkler to be located out of the way of the wood joist, and the hanger also reduces the number of wood supports required to install the piping system.”
Ballanco says that with the increasing cost of copper tubing, switching to a plastic sprinkler pipe system can reduce the overall cost of material.
“I evaluated an affordable home that had the hot and cold water piping in copper, and I modified the design to a multi-purpose piping system (combination of sprinkler and cold water supply). Because I switched the cold water piping to CPVC, I also switched the hot water piping to CPVC.
“The net result of the change in design was that the material costs were reduced by US$183, and the labor required to install the system increased by 8.6 hours. When you consider the material cost and labor, by changing material you can sprinkler a home for practically no difference in installed cost. There is more labor, but the plastic pipe costs less and installs faster.”
Ballanco says the Lifesafety Code NFPA 101 requires all US residential buildings to be protected by a sprinkler system. However, the States and other jurisdictions have not adopted NFPA 101 to regulate one and two-family dwellings.
“The most common code used in the US is the International Residential Code from the International Codes Council. There are a number of changes proposed to this code to require sprinklers for all residential buildings, and the first hearing took place in September 2006. A final, positive decision is anticipated in May 2007.”
Gary Johnson, global business development manager at Noveon, which markets BlazeMaster® CPVC fire sprinkler systems, says stand-alone CPVC fire sprinkler systems are less expensive than multi-purpose sprinkler systems.
“Many people mistakenly believe that multi-purpose is less expensive,” Johnson says.
“However, it has been proved time and time again that this is not true. The number one driver for the cost of an NFPA 13D sprinkler system is whether or not there is a market. In other words, are there contractors submitting competitive bids in a market that is large enough to supply efficient manpower requirements?
“If you do design a multi-purpose fire sprinkler system, it is important to note that fire sprinkler water supply is the driving force for the initial pipe layout because fire sprinklers demand the greatest amount of water. They are a life-saving system for which sprinkler locations are important, and they must be supported by hydraulic calculations. Existing plumbing pipes just do not have the capacity to carry enough water to supply these sprinklers.”
Johnson says some standard fire sprinkler or plumbing features available in separate systems may not be available in a multi-purpose system.
For example, installation of future plumbing components such as water softeners and filters may affect the original hydraulic design, plumbing system pressure-reducing valves may reduce the fire sprinkler pressure, and a flow alarm cannot be part of a multi-purpose system.
In addition, the entire system must meet the plumbing code and NFPA 13D requirements.
Carmine Schiavone is vice-president of marketing and sales at sprinkler systems manufacturer Tyco Fire and Building Products. He says the US Fire Service is pushing for mandatory residential sprinkler systems but there is some opposition from builders, mainly on the grounds of increased construction costs.
“However, especially since 9/11, there is increased public awareness of safety issues and this is helping to drive the proposal for mandatory residential sprinklers,” Schiavone says.
“Also, the cost of installing systems has decreased over recent years.
“Most sprinkler systems are stand-alone, but there is a trend to combine the home potable water system and the sprinkler system by utilising common piping in a multi-purpose system.”
Ron Murray of Oregon’s United Association of Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 290 says the union has created a successful residential fire sprinkler program through creative partnering with fire departments, building officials and the State’s building codes division.
“As a fire chief, I have to ask: why not use the residential plumbing system to deliver water to a fire and give the firefighters a break?” Murray says.
“Hundreds of gallons of water are delivered to a fire by firefighters and their equipment, whereas residential sprinklers put out as little as seven gallons (26L) per minute.
“In an effort to integrate the fire service with the piping industry, Local 290 teaches about residential sprinklers at our fire station. Most of the students are plumbers, but interspersed are fire inspectors, building officials and developers. Builders actually get to see that plumbing-based fire suppression systems are a profit centre.
“We did not attempt to mandate residential sprinklers. Rather, by working collaboratively, the local residential sprinkler installation industry has grown more than 3000% in five years, and we have made the plumbing-based system a logical choice for builders and communities.”
Murray is also chairman of the American Society of Sanitary Engineering ASSE 7000 committee, which is in the process of adopting ASSE Series 7000 for plumbing-based residential fire sprinklers. It is also moving forward with a Standard for training plumbers who install residential systems, as well as a Standard for inspectors.
If the cost/benefit equation reaches a tipping point, the insurance industry could mount a compelling argument for implementation of this technology. If insurers can see benefit in offering consumers a discount on premiums and the consumer sees a reasonable rate of return, then residential sprinklers may be the way of protecting those all-important plasma screens – and perhaps a family member or two.
The growing cost of providing and maintaining fire stations in outer suburbs, and limited street access (due to smaller land sizes) for fire appliances will also boost the argument for residential sprinklers.