One of the most common concerns fire sprinkler opponents raise is the fact that automatic fire sprinklers have a risk of accidentally going off, which could result in your building getting soaked and costing a bunch of money. And while there is an inherent risk of accidental fire sprinkler discharge, that risk is so small it’s almost insignificant—by current industry standards, only one in 16,000,000 sprinkler heads will accidentally discharge each year! Not only that, but the damage actually caused by fire sprinklers is minimal—eight to 12 gallons of water per minute will do damage if the sprinklers are allowed to spray for long periods of time, but if they are caught right away they’ll be easy to clean up.
Though rare, accidental discharges can be caused by a number of things, including:
Overheating – automatic fire sprinklers are activated by heat, but there’s no way for them to differentiate between “good” heat and “bad” heat. As a result, sprinkler heads with higher heat ratings must be used close to unit heaters, under skylights, and in other areas exposed to high heat.
Even temporary heat-producing sources, including construction lighting and TV cameras, can generate enough heat to set off sprinklers!
Freezing – on the other side of the spectrum, freezing temperatures can also cause damage to your fire sprinkler. We don’t always have to worry about temps dipping too low here in Houston, but with wet pipe fire sprinklers (where water is kept in the pipes) you should always be aware of the risk! If the water in wet pipe fire sprinklers freezes, it will expand and subject the pipes to thousands of pounds of pressure, breaking fittings and occasionally forcing open the valve caps of sprinklers. When the system finally thaws, this can result in apparent accidental discharge.
Mechanical damage – a sprinkler head consists of a frame, a seat, and an operating mechanism, either a solder link or a glass bulb. Together, these components form a sealed unit that has to maintain its integrity and then operate efficiently in the event of a fire. The sprinkler parts are connected somewhat like a coiled spring, holding in the energy needed to activate when needed. Unfortunately, any impact to the sprinkler can disrupt the setup, resulting in damage and separation of parts. A large enough force can immediately open a sprinkler, but even a smaller impact can do the same thing over time.
Corrosion – corrosion can weaken the components of your sprinkler heads, potentially causing an accidental discharge. This typically occurs with older fire sprinklers in need of replacement. Part of our Houston fire sprinkler inspection process includes checking the sprinklers for corrosion.
Deliberate sabotage – it’s not unheard of for sprinkler heads to be deliberately discharged in acts of vandalism or insurance fraud!
The most important thing to do in the event of an accidental discharge is to save all the sprinkler parts. Pieces of sprinkler operating mechanisms can usually be salvaged during cleanup, and are extremely valuable in helping determine the reason for the activation.
Once you’ve got all the pieces, complete an observation of the surrounding physical environment. Make sure you tell the investigators about the history of the sprinkler. For newer sprinklers, this would include things like the conditions under which it was shipped to the job site, stored, and installed. For older sprinklers, make sure you tell them things like the conditions of use. Include the possibility of damage from materials handling equipment, the potential exposure to freezing conditions, and the possibility of temporary heat sources.
Accidental fire sprinkler discharges are exceedingly rare, and most can be prevented with annual fire sprinkler inspection. If you need fire sprinkler inspection in Houston, call Kauffman Co. today!
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