Your fire sprinkler system along with fire alarm monitoring is the first line of defense in the event of a fire, consisting of a water supply system, providing adequate pressure and flow rate to a water distribution piping system, onto which fire sprinklers are connected. Although historically only used in factories and large commercial buildings, home and small building systems are now available at a cost-effective price.
Each closed-head sprinkler is held closed by either a heat-sensitive glass bulb or a two-part metal link held together with fusible alloy. The glass bulb or link applies pressure to a pip cap which acts as a plug which prevents water from flowing until the ambient temperature around the sprinkler reaches the design activation temperature of the individual sprinkler head. In a standard wet-pipe sprinkler system, each sprinkler activates independently when the predetermined heat level is reached. Because of this, the number of sprinklers that operate is limited to only those near the fire (in reality, normally one or two will activate), thereby maximizing the available water pressure over the point of fire origin. This also minimizes the water damage to the building.
A sprinkler activation will do less damage than a fire department hose stream, which provide approximately (250 US gallons/min). A typical sprinkler used for industrial manufacturing occupancies discharge about (20-40 US gallons/min). However, a typical Early Suppression Fast Response (ESFR) sprinkler at a pressure of 50 psi will discharge approximately 100 US gallons per minute. In addition, a sprinkler will usually activate between one and four minutes, whereas the fire department typically takes at least five minutes to arrive at the fire site after receiving an alarm, and an additional ten minutes to set up equipment and apply hose streams to the fire. This additional time can result in a much larger fire, requiring much more water to extinguish.
Three Most Common Types of Sprinkler Systems
Wet Pipe Systems
By a wide margin, wet pipe sprinkler systems are installed more often than all other types of fire sprinkler systems. They also are the most reliable, because they are simple, with the only operating components being the automatic sprinklers and (commonly, but not always) the automatic alarm check valve. An automatic water supply provides water under pressure to the system piping.
Dry Pipe Systems
Dry pipe systems are installed in spaces in which the ambient temperature may be cold enough to freeze the water in a wet pipe system, rendering the system inoperable. Dry pipe systems are most often used in unheated buildings, in parking garages, in outside canopies attached to heated buildings (in which a wet pipe system would be provided), or in refrigerated coolers. Dry pipe systems are the second most common sprinkler system type. In regions using NFPA regulations, dry pipe systems cannot be installed unless the range of ambient temperatures reaches above 40F.
Operation – Water is not present in the piping until the system operates. The piping is filled with air below the water supply pressure. To prevent the larger water supply pressure from forcing water into the piping, the design of the dry pipe valve (a specialized type of check valve) results in a greater force on top of the check valve clapper by the use of a larger valve clapper area exposed to the piping air pressure, as compared to the higher water pressure but smaller clapper surface area.
When one or more of the automatic sprinklers is exposed, for a sufficient time, to a temperature at or above the temperature rating, it opens, allowing the air in the piping to vent from that sprinkler. Each sprinkler operates individually. As the air pressure in the piping drops, the pressure differential across the dry pipe valve changes, allowing water to enter the piping system. Water flow from sprinklers, needed to control the fire, is delayed until the air is vented from the sprinklers. In regions using NFPA 13 regulations, the time it takes water to reach the hydraulically remote sprinkler from the time that sprinkler is activated is limited to a maximum of 60 seconds. In industry practice, this is known as the “Maximum Time of Water Delivery.” The maximum time of water delivery may be required to be reduced, depending on the hazard classification of the area protected by the sprinkler system.
Some view dry pipe sprinklers as advantageous for protection of collections and other water sensitive areas. This perceived benefit is due to a fear that wet system piping may leak, while dry pipe systems will not. However, the same potential for accidental water damage exists, as dry pipe systems will only provide a slight delay prior to water discharge while the air in the piping is released from the pipe.
Disadvantages of using dry pipe fire sprinkler systems include:
- Increased complexity
- Higher installation and maintenance costs
- Lower design flexibility
- Increased fire response time
- Increased corrosion potential
Pre-action sprinkler systems are specialized for use in locations where accidental activation is undesired, such as in museums with rare art works, manuscripts, or books; and Data Centers, for protection of computer equipment from accidental water discharge.
Pre-action systems are hybrids of wet, dry, and deluge systems, depending on the exact system goal. There are two main sub-types of pre-action systems: single interlock, and double interlock.
The operation of single interlock systems are similar to dry systems except that these systems require that a “preceding” fire detection event, typically the activation of a heat or smoke detector, takes place prior to the “action” of water introduction into the system’s piping by opening the pre-action valve, which is a mechanically latched valve (i.e., similar to a deluge valve). In this way, the system is essentially converted from a dry system into a wet system. The intent is to reduce the undesirable time delay of water delivery to sprinklers that is inherent in dry systems. Prior to fire detection, if the sprinkler operates, or the piping system develops a leak, loss of air pressure in the piping will activate a trouble alarm. In this case, the pre-action valve will not open due to loss of supervisory pressure, and water will not enter the piping.
The operation of double interlock systems are similar to deluge systems except that automatic sprinklers are used. These systems require that both a “preceding” fire detection event, typically the activation of a heat or smoke detector, and an automatic sprinkler operation take place prior to the “action” of water introduction into the system’s piping. Activation of either the fire detectors alone, or sprinklers alone, without the concurrent operation of the other, will not allow water to enter the piping. Because water does not enter the piping until a sprinkler operates, double interlock systems are considered as dry systems in terms of water delivery times, and similarly require a larger design area.
Control or Suppress
Sprinkler systems are intended to either control the fire or to suppress the fire. Control mode sprinklers are intended to control the heat release rate of the fire to prevent building structure collapse, and pre-wet the surrounding combustibles to prevent fire spread. The fire is not extinguished until the burning combustibles are exhausted or manual extinguishment is effected by firefighters. Suppression mode sprinklers (formerly known as Early Suppression Fast Response (ESFR) sprinklers) are intended to result in a severe sudden reduction of the heat release rate of the fire, followed quickly by complete extinguishment, prior to manual intervention.
Most sprinkler systems installed today are designed using an area and density approach. First the building use and building contents are analyzed to determine the level of fire hazard. Usually buildings are classified as light hazard, ordinary hazard group 1, ordinary hazard group 2, extra hazard group 1, or extra hazard group 2. After determining the hazard classification, a design area and density can be determined by referencing tables in the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards. The design area is a theoretical area of the building representing the worst case area where a fire could burn. The design density is a measurement of how much water per square foot of floor area should be applied to the design area.
After the design area and density have been determined, calculations are performed to prove that the system can deliver the required amount of water over the required design area. These calculations account for all of the pressure that is lost or gained between the water supply source and the sprinklers that would operate in the design area. This includes pressure losses due to friction inside the piping and losses or gains due to elevation differences between the source and the discharging sprinklers. Sometimes momentum pressure from water velocity inside the piping is also calculated. Typically these calculations are performed using computer software but before the advent of computer systems these sometimes complicated calculations were performed by hand. This skill of calculating sprinkler systems by hand is still required training for a sprinkler system design technologist who seeks senior level certification from engineering certification organizations such as the National Institute for Certification in Engineering Technologies (NICET).
Sprinkler systems in residential structures are becoming more common as the cost of such systems becomes more practical and the benefits become more obvious. Residential sprinkler systems usually fall under a residential classification separate from the commercial classifications mentioned above. A commercial sprinkler system is designed to protect the structure and the occupants from a fire. Most residential sprinkler systems are primarily designed to suppress a fire in such a way to allow for the safe escape of the building occupants. While these systems will often also protect the structure from major fire damage, this is a secondary consideration. In residential structures sprinklers are often omitted from closets, bathrooms, balconies, garages and attics because a fire in these areas would not usually impact the occupant’s escape route.
Electric, Diesel or Steam
Fire pumps may be powered either by an electric motor or a diesel engine, or, occasionally a steam turbine. If the local building code requires power independent of the local electric power grid, a pump using an electric motor may utilize, when connected via a listed transfer switch, the installation of an emergency generator.
The fire pump starts when the pressure in the fire sprinkler system drops below a threshold. The sprinkler system pressure drops significantly when one or more fire sprinklers are exposed to heat above their design temperature, and opens, releasing water. Alternately, other fire hoses reels or other firefighting connections are opened, causing a pressure drop in the fire fighting main.
Fire pumps are needed when the local municipal water system cannot provide sufficient pressure to meet the hydraulic design requirements of the fire sprinkler system. This usually occurs if the building is very tall, such as in high-rise buildings, or in systems that require a relatively high terminal pressure at the fire sprinkler in order to provide a large volume of water, such as in storage warehouses. Fire pumps are also needed if fire protection water supply is provided from a ground level water storage tank.