A proactive approach to extend the life of your systems.
Among the requirements needed to keep commercial fire sprinklers working and code compliant are the routine inspections, which can seem complex. Most of the Inspection, Testing and Maintenance (ITM) of sprinkler systems require a qualified life safety professional, but some of the work can be done by in-house facility personnel.
NFPA 25, the Standard for the Inspection, Testing, and Maintenance of Water-Based Fire Protection Systems is the primary standard for most facilities and this standard assign specific responsibilities to the property owner or their designated representative. The property owner is ultimately responsible for the integrity of the fire sprinkler system even if ITM is being provided by an outside contractor.
4.1.1 Responsibility for Inspection, Testing, Maintenance, and Impairment. – The property owner or designated representative shall be responsible for properly maintaining a water-based fire protection system.
Property owners using independent contractors for ITM services can still utilize onsite personnel to perform basic inspection requirements and maintenance to proactively manage sprinkler system(s). It is important to define in a well-written scope of work the responsibilities of both the ITM contractor and the property owner to eliminate any possible confusion. Furthermore, property owners are responsible for ensuring their contractor’s reporting forms meet the requirements of their local AHJ(s) (Authority Having Jurisdiction). Even if a property owner or facility manager defers all inspections to a contractor, it is important be able to identify issues to proactively address them before they become a system impairment or flood a facility.
NFPA 25 requires an annual visual inspection – “from the floor level” – of both sprinkler heads and the pipe and fittings they are attached to:
From the 2023 Edition of NFPA 25
188.8.131.52 Sprinklers shall be inspected from the floor level annually.
5.2.2* Pipe and Fittings. Sprinkler pipes and fittings shall be inspected annually from the floor level.
Visual inspection of sprinklers is meant to determine if the system will operate correctly in the event of a fire. It is important for the inspector to understand the local requirements for reporting, tagging, and any local exceptions or requirements to NFPA 25. If any part of the sprinkler system shows signs of deficiencies, property owners are liable to make repairs.
Here are some things to look for during a visual inspection, and recommendations on how to fix and prevent future impairments.
Damage or Leakage
Damage to the sprinkler head, pipe, and fittings is most obvious when there is an active leak. Visual inspections do not require the removal of cover plates or inspection of sprinklers in concealed spaces, but signs of water damage are an obvious indication of an issue and require further investigation. Pipe couplings should also be inspected for signs of damage, leaking, and corrosion.
Paint, caulking, and spray insulation are common problems that are visible on a sprinkler head or cover plate. Sprinkler heads and concealed cover plates may only be painted by the manufacturer and must be deemed deficient if painted. It is important to view a head from multiple angles to get an adequate inspection. Furthermore, cover plates cannot be glued, caulked, or epoxied as this would prevent them from functioning correctly in the event of a fire.
Many sprinklers are manufactured using a clear glass bulb with a colored fluid and bubble designed to break at specific temperatures. The liquid is most often red in color, but it could be orange, yellow, green, blue, or purple, depending on the sprinkler’s temperature rating. A system inspection should include a close look at these sprinklers to confirm that the fluid and bubble are not missing. Without this fluid and bubble, the glass will not break when exposed to high temperature, resulting in a sprinkler that may not activate during a fire. Other components that can be visually inspected from the floor might include hangers, braces, and supports. Loose, bent, or damaged system bracing needs to be replaced.
Corrosion occurs when water, oxygen, and ferrous metal react. Steel fire sprinkler pipe filled with a mixture of water and trapped air provides the perfect environment for corrosion. Corrosion can also occur on the sprinkler head or deflector which would impact the water distribution patterns and is considered a deficiency requiring replacement. Sprinklers loaded with dust should be carefully cleaned with a vacuum or compressed air. Facility managers should work with their service provider to determine who is responsible for cleaning heads.
Internal corrosion is more difficult to spot during a floor level inspection. Evidence of pipe corrosion would be visible corrosion at pipe joints and pin-hole leaks. Corrosion monitors with visual indicators are an easier gauge of what is going on inside of the system piping and can alert facilities managers of internal corrosion before leaking becomes an issue.
One simple method for preventing internal pipe corrosion on wet sprinkler systems is installing air vents. Air vents are now required on new systems but can also be retrofit onto existing systems. By removing trapped air, internal pipes no longer have the oxygen needed for the metal to react and create corrosion. An excellent time to retrofit air vents into a system to extend the life of the pipe is when the ITM contractor performs the required 5-year internal inspection.
A bit more technical and sometimes hard to observe from the ground, but sprinkler head orientation is important. Sprinkler heads may look similar but are manufactured for specific applications and only function correctly when installed correctly. Facility personnel might need to rely on their ITM Contractors for this inspection and will need them to fix any sprinklers that are incorrectly installed.
Visual inspection for clearances is less about the sprinkler and more about the items stored around them. Space can be limited, and storage space can become overcrowded. When items are stacked the general rule is that there must be at least 18” of clearance around a sprinkler head to prevent obstruction of the water discharge. Other items to look for are temporary obstructions like banners or decorations and permanent structures that were installed after the sprinkler system such as fans and lighting.
When a sprinkler system is installed, a spare sprinkler cabinet is a requirement and it should have a small supply of replacement sprinklers matching those installed in the system, a wrench for each type of sprinkler, and a list of spare sprinklers. This cabinet should also be inspected to confirm nothing is missing.
Although it is not a requirement of the annual visual inspection, property owners are still responsible for ensuring their sprinkler systems are in a heated space.
4.1.2 The property owner or designated representative shall ensure that water-filled piping is maintained at a minimum temperature of 40°F unless an approved antifreeze solution is utilized.
When an area cannot be heated, like a parking garage, a dry system will need to be installed. A dry system contains pressurized air and when a sprinkler is activated the internal air pressure drops, tripping the dry valve open and allowing water to be released into the system to fight a fire. Although they are called dry systems, they still require draining. Auxiliary drains, also referred to as low-point drains or drum drips, collect condensation that forms in the pipes. During colder months, improperly maintained, auxiliary drains can easily freeze and break causing major flooding. The cost to repair and reset the fire sprinkler system itself is negligible compared to the cost of water damage mitigation, potential slip and fall liability, possible lost inventory, tenant interruption, and increased insurance premiums.
To proactively manage auxiliary drains, you must not only inspect them but also drain them frequently. There are several options to help with this task. Heat tracing is one solution, but it can be expensive to install and operate, and difficult to maintain. Heated auxiliary drain cabinets, with manually operated drain valves or automatic drain valves, are another option that will prevent freezing. Less expensive options include devices designed to prevent flooding, these devices can be installed into the piping system above an auxiliary drain, and they will stop the flow of water if a drain breaks.
This required attention and maintenance might seem overwhelming, but it is essential for the safety of building occupants that property owners ensure that their fire sprinkler systems are functioning correctly. A comprehensive and well documented Inspection, Testing, and Maintenance plan that identifies and clearly defines the responsibilities of the Property Owner, the facilities’ internal staff, and contracted ITM Life Safety Professionals is a critical first step to avoid confusion and manage those responsibilities. Proactively managing fire sprinkler systems will save lives, will protect property, will extend system life, and will ultimately save money.
This article originally appeared in Private University Products & News (PUPN) Magazine – June 2023 Issue