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Sprinkler Systems

History & Development & Benefits of Sprinkler System

Sprinklers were invented by an American, Henry S. Parmelee, in 1874 to protect his piano factory.

Until the 1940's and 1950's sprinklers were installed almost exclusively for the protection of buildings, especially warehouses and factories. Insurance savings which could pay back the cost of the system in a few years time were the major incentives.

Following several fires with large losses of life (Cocoanut Grove Night Club - Boston, 1942 - 492 dead; LaSalle Hotel - Chicago, 1946 - 61 dead; Winecoff Hotel - Atlanta, 1946 - 119 dead) fire and building officials searched for a means to provide life safety for building occupants. They found that factories and other buildings equipped with automatic sprinklers had an amazingly good record of life loss as compared with similar unsprinklered buildings.

Building codes, over the past two decades, have been increasingly calling for sprinklers throughout buildings for life safety, especially buildings in which rapid evacuation of occupants is difficult or the hazard posed by contents is high.

Operation

Sprinklers are individually heat-activated, and tied into a network of piping with water under pressure. When the heat of a fire raises the sprinkler temperature to its operating point (usually 165 degrees F), a solder link will melt or a liquid-filled glass bulb will shatter to open that single sprinkler, releasing water directly over the source of the heat.

Life Safety Features

Sprinklers operate automatically in the area of fire origin, preventing a fire from growing undetected to a dangerous size, while simultaneously sounding an alarm.

Sprinklers keep fires small. The majority of fires in sprinklered buildings are handled by one or two sprinklers.

Sprinklers do not rely upon human factors such as familiarity with escape routes or emergency assistance. They go to work immediately to reduce the danger.

Sprinklers prevent the fast-developing fires of intense heat which are capable of trapping and killing dozens of building occupants.

Smoke, a by-product of fire, is generally the cause of death to building occupants. Although smoke is produced as sprinklers extinguish a fire, such quantities of smoke are less than those which would be produced by an unsprinklered fire permitted to grow large and eventually extinguished by fire department hoses.

Life Safety Record

Aside from fire fighting and explosion fatalities, there has never been a multiple loss of life in a fully sprinklered building due to fire or smoke. Individual lives have been lost when the victim or his immediate clothing or surroundings became the source of the fire.

A National Fire Protection Association study for the years 1971-1975 found that approximately 20 lives are lost each year in this country in sprinklered buildings, as compared to approximately 8,000 deaths per year in unsprinklered buildings. Some 68% of the lives lost in sprinklered buildings were due to explosions, and an additional 18% were due to the fact that the fire originated in an unsprinklered area of the building.

Design and Installation

Proper design and installation of sprinkler systems is standardized nationally in a consensus standard promulgated by the National Fire Protection Association - NFPA 13.

A basic premise of proper sprinkler protection is that sprinklers be installed throughout all building areas. Partial sprinkler protection is a game of chance, since a fire originating in an unsprinklered area can overpower sprinklers once given a head start.

Electrical supervision of sprinkler systems to detect closed valves or water flow is a major plus in assuring system reliability and effectiveness, and required by many building codes for large and important system installations.

Reliability

All fire protection features have a reliability factor. Walls and shafts can be breached by means of poke- throughs and building alterations. Exit doors can be blocked or locked.

Sprinklers may be the most reliable fire protection system known. Detailed fire records from Australia and New Zealand (where fires must be reported) for the years 1886 through 1968 showed that 99.76% of all fires were extinguished or controlled by the sprinklers. Fire records in this country are less dependable due to lack of full reporting, especially for small fires where the sprinklers are successful. Nevertheless, the range includes a 96.2% success record reported by the National Fire Protection Association for the years 1925 through 1969, a 98.4% success record for New York City high-rise buildings between 1969 and 1978, and a 98.2% success record for U.S. Department of Energy facilities between 1952 and 1980.

Myths about Sprinklers

Myth: When the system activates all the sprinklers in the system discharge water.

This false concept has been nurtured by the entertainment industry, and the visual effects created by all the sprinklers discharging water, instead of the single sprinkler head.

The vast majority of sprinklers systems, have normally closed sprinkler heads with a heat sensitive operating element in each head. The element may be a solder type metal link or a liquid filled glass bulb. When the element is subjected to a sufficient amount of heat, the element activates and opens the single sprinkler head allowing water to flow. Only the sprinklers heads in the vicinity of the fire that have been subjected to a sufficient amount of heat will flow water.

Myth: Sprinkler systems leak and cause more damage then the threat of a fire.

Sprinklers are a precision manufactured device, and the statisics indicate that less than 1 in a 16 million sprinklers leak/year. Sprinklers are normally closed and only opened once, then replaced. Unlike a faucet that wears, through continual opening and closing, sprinklers do not wear and operate only once, or never.

Myth: Sprinkler systems leak and cause more damage then the threat of a fire.

Sprinklers are a precision manufactured device, and the statisics indicate that less than 1 in a 16 million sprinklers leak/year. Sprinklers are normally closed and only opened once, then replaced. Unlike a faucet that wears, through continual opening and closing, sprinklers do not wear and operate only once, or never.