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You are currently viewing 5 Most Common Causes of Failures in Fire Sprinkler Systems

5 Most Common Causes of Failures in Fire Sprinkler Systems

Top 5 Causes of Discharges and Leaks in fire sprinkler systems

Most people think that a fire sprinkler system is either on or off. They think that if their fire sprinkler system is turned on, then it works each and every time the fire alarm sounds. The truth however, is that an improperly installed or maintained fire sprinkler system may not operate as designed. In fact, according to FPA, roughly 70% of all fire sprinklers are prematurely disabled because they were not properly inspected or maintained. Let’s take a look at some of the most common leaks and discharges in fire sprinkler systems.

A few simple preventive measures and tools can help you avoid fire sprinkler accidents.

Do you know what’s the most common reason for an accidental discharge of fire sprinklers?

It’s not a fire. It’s water.

In fact, one in five accidental discharges are caused by water—not heat. And that means that if your sprinkler system isn’t properly maintained, there’s a chance that it could be triggered when there’s no sign of a blaze—and a fire sprinkler accident can inflict costly water damage.

Luckily, there are simple ways to avoid this kind of accident. In this blog post, we examine the most common reasons for accidental discharges of fire sprinklers and system leaks, from unplanned heat sources to vandalism. We also present simple ways to avoid them, including proper maintenance and an $80 product that can prevent thousands of dollars in property damage in impact-prone environments: heavy-duty head guards.

When a fire sprinkler malfunctions, it can cause extensive water damage to surrounding structures.

If a fire sprinkler head is accidentally activated, it can cause significant damage to your building.

Fire sprinkler heads are automatically triggered by a buildup of heat. A liquid-filled glass bulb bursts or a soldered metal link melts at a given temperature, allowing a plug to drop out, followed by water. In most cases, only one or two sprinklers are needed to control a fire, helping properties escape significant water damage from fire hoses that can spew ten times the amount of water.

But the simple activation process that makes fire sprinklers so reliable during an emergency also makes them vulnerable to accidental discharges, a term that encompasses everything from human carelessness to deliberate sabotage. Quick response fire sprinklers release 30 to 90 per minute or more, taking less than 20 minutes to dump hundreds of gallons of water throughout a property if there is a persistent water supply that’s not blocked or shut off.

It only takes something as minor as a low-temperature sprinkler placed beneath a skylight on a hot summer day or a painter accidentally bumping a sprinklers fragile bulb to trigger a flood that leads to mold, mildew, ruined walls and flooring, and other pricey damage.

Clean-up costs: an estimated $1,000 for every minute a sprinkler is left running.

Are you at risk of a fire sprinkler accident?

When you think about fire sprinklers, what comes to mind? Do you picture an emergency situation, where flames are leaping from a building and the sprinkler system is doing exactly what it was designed to do?

Or do you imagine a more mundane scenario: water flowing down the walls of your building like a waterfall, or even worse—a flood that keeps rising, threatening to destroy everything in its path?

The truth is that most sprinklers don’t actually activate in emergency situations; rather, they’re activated by routine activities such as cooking and plumbing repairs.

And while this may seem like a problem at first glance, it’s actually good news. After all, if your sprinklers were only activated during true emergencies, it would mean they weren’t working properly. But when they activate because of normal activities such as cooking or showering, that means they’re doing their job just fine!

So let’s take a moment and put this into perspective: accidental sprinkler discharges are much less costly or frequent than water damage involving a building’s plumbing or water supply. In fact, FPA reports that in at least half of reported non-fire sprinkler activations

sprinkler accidents

An improperly rated sprinkler inside a skylight could be triggered by the sun’s heat. 

1. Overheating is a common cause of fire sprinkler accidents.

Sprinklers are a critical part of fire protection systems. But they can also be a potential hazard if they’re triggered by the wrong kind of heat.

Automatic sprinklers are triggered by high temperatures—and they can’t tell the difference between “normal” sources of heat and a fire. That means locating them too close to heat sources such as unit heaters, skylights, or commercial cooking equipment can inadvertently set them off. Even temporary heat-producing sources like construction lighting or television cameras have been known to open the floodgates.

Fortunately, there’s a simple solution for avoiding accidental sprinkler trips in places that run hotter than normal: sprinklers calibrated so their thermal element won’t activate until higher temperatures are reached. The 2019 edition of NCC Volume 1 – Specification E1.5 Fire Sprinkler Systems lays out specific scenarios where higher-temperature-rated sprinklers should be installed to avoid accidental discharges.

It is important to remember that if new heat sources are added to a property, fire sprinklers may also need to be adjusted.

2. When temperatures drop to freezing, water lines are susceptible to leaks.

When the temperature drops, it’s time to prepare for the worst. If you have a wet-pipe sprinkler system, it’s important to know what kind of damage freezing temperatures can do—and how to prevent it.

This one doesn’t always involve an accidental sprinkler head activation, per se. But it will certainly put a lot of water on the floor. Most sprinkler systems are wet pipe systems, meaning water constantly fills their pipes. And if even a small portion of the system is exposed to freezing temperatures during an unexpected cold snap or a power outage that leaves a building without heat, ice can quickly form in the piping.

Frozen water expands by about 10 percent, exerting thousands of pounds of pressure that can break fittings, crack pipes, and force valve caps open. When the temperature finally warms and the ice melts, leaks or even full-blown system trips can result.
One of the most common ways this is done is by adding a listed anti-freeze solution to the pipes, using electric heat tracing, or increasing insulation. But if heating is interrupted to a wet sprinkler system for more than a few hours and the ambient temperature plummets toward 4° C the temperature when ice crystals begin to form—draining the water from the sprinkler pipes might become necessary.

It’s wise for property owners to familiarize themselves with their system’s drainage procedures, as sprinkler contractors may not be able to respond quickly enough when emergencies occur. It’s also a good idea to check the area that houses the sprinkler system for improperly sealed doors and windows, cracks, loose siding, or other defects that could lead to frozen pipes.

Dry sprinkler systems are designed to operate at temperatures down to freezing, which is a huge advantage over wet systems, which become useless in cold weather. They rely on pressurized air or nitrogen to hold back the water supply at a dry pipe valve located in a heated space.

But even dry sprinkler systems risk damage caused by freezing if water pools in their pipes from condensation or someone fails to adequately drain the system after annual testing. If the ice causes the pipes to crack, it can trip the dry pipe valve.

Preaction fire sprinkler systems have similarities with dry systems, but go even further to prevent accidental discharges. They typically require two separate events before releasing water, such as the activation of the sprinkler head and separate detection of flame, heat, or smoke.

3. Fire sprinkler manufacturing defects and mechanical damage can create a hazard.

The odds of a manufacturing defect leading to unwanted discharges are astronomically low: about 1 in 16 million. But that doesn’t mean they don’t occur.

Fire sprinkler manufacturers regularly test sprinklers before they are sold, usually at two or three times expected operating pressures. An acceptance test is also performed right after systems are installed to ensure that they work as expected.

But unfortunately, damaged or defective fire sprinklers do occasionally make their way into service, and it’s usually because of damage that occurs after they are manufactured. Quick response sprinklers are especially vulnerable to damage during shipping and installation, as the components that heighten their sensitivity also make them more fragile.

The best way to avoid this is by ensuring your contractor follows proper installation procedures for quick response sprinklers by using proper tools such as a rubber mallet instead of a steel hammer or pry bar to avoid damaging the internal components.

Scheduled inspections of your fire sprinkler system help you to catch damage before it becomes a problem.

Mechanical damage is one of the leading causes of accidental sprinkler discharges, and something as simple as over-tightening a sprinkler head can wreak havoc. The components of a fire sprinkler system are joined together like a tightly coiled spring, and the impact from something like an errant basketball can knock them apart and instantly pop open the sprinkler. If the entire sprinkler head is ripped off—say, by a forklift—water will gush even faster, potentially dumping hundreds of gallons in minutes.

But smaller, unseen impacts can be just as serious, setting the stage for the sprinkler to unexpectedly release weeks or even months after the damage is done. Careful handling is essential during installation and the importance of using the proper fire sprinkler wrenches can’t be emphasized enough.

Sprinkler head guards are a simple solution for protecting your sprinkler heads from damage caused by accidental impact. They are designed to fit over standard sprinkler heads, and they offer a protective barrier that can withstand heavy impacts without breaking or bending.

Heavy-duty fire sprinkler head guards can prevent accidental damage in impact-prone environments, such as gymnasiums, warehouses, construction sites, and recreational centers. But while standard sprinkler cages can defend against small or slow-moving objects, they are no match for hard hits.

When it comes to fire sprinkler protection, there are two main types of head guards: standard and heavy-duty. Standard head guards protect against slow impacts, but they can’t handle hard impacts—that’s where the heavy-duty variety comes in.

Heavy-duty head guards completely repel hard impacts or slow even-harder ones by creating a “crush zone.” They can be installed over existing fire sprinklers and cages via two jig-assembled clamps that attach directly to the sprinkler system’s piping, further boosting their strength vs. standard head guards, which attach to the head. These head guards come in bright colors that make the sprinklers hard to miss, as well as standard choices like white and black.

4. Corrosion can cause a pipe to fail, leading to leaks.

The fire protection industry has long been plagued by corrosion, and it’s not just dry sprinklers that are at risk. Any system that mixes iron, water, and oxygen can be susceptible to electrochemical corrosion. When it does occur, the result is an orangey-red rust that eats away at the metal pipes from the inside. This rust can create holes the size of pins or even pennies—and it does this quickly!

At the right temperatures, this “corrosion triangle” also creates an ideal breeding ground for microbiologically influenced corrosion (MIC), obstructing pipes with a crust of tubercules that create holes and degrade flow characteristics if loose scale or rust plugs sprinklers and valves.
Corrosion Solutions, report produced by the Fire Protection Association (FPA), asserts that 73 percent of dry sprinkler systems suffer significant corrosion issues after 12.5 years. If discovered in time, it’s possible to fix the failing pieces of pipe. But often, pinhole leaks that are discovered in a section of pipe are just a minor symptom of a rotting system hidden behind walls or within the ceiling. Left untreated, corrosion will weaken sprinkler system parts enough to cause leaks and unintentional activations of dry system

The FPA has been working with corrosion researchers to find solutions for preventing corrosion in sprinkler systems. One such solution is an epoxy coating that can be applied directly onto wetted steel pipes and fittings to prevent rusting and keep them safe from damage caused by moisture exposure over time.

Another solution involves galvanizing steel pipes and fittings with hot-dip zinc coating methods which creates a protective layer around bare metal surfaces so they won’t rust away as quickly as they do naturally if left unprotected under normal conditions (i.e., without any sort of protective coating).

Regular inspection and testing of sprinkler systems are critical to catching corrosion at its earliest stages and preventing costly damage—or worse, system failure during a fire. A growing trend toward stripping the pressurized air from dry sprinklers and replacing it with nitrogen is also dramatically increasing the lifespan of dry piping.

Nitrogen is an inert gas, meaning it doesn’t undergo the chemical reactions that lead to electrochemical corrosion. Creating an oxygen-free environment in sprinkler pipes enables them to last an average of 5.3 times longer regardless of whether water is present, according to Corrosion Solutions research.

sprinkler pipe corrosion

5. Fire sprinklers are intentionally disabled.

Sprinklers are an effective way to protect people and property from fire, but they can also be used to cause intentional damage. From insurance fraud to vandalism and not-so-funny pranks, deliberate sabotage is the final leading cause of accidental sprinkler discharges. Headlines are filled with tales of sprinklers that caused mayhem after they were intentionally set off, and some environments such as prisons and mental health facilities are especially prone to deliberate sabotage.

In fact, the risk of ongoing vandalism to sprinkler heads is a significant reason prisons delay installing fire protection systems, fearing the substantial costs of clean-up. But choosing to go without creates an even bigger risk in an environment where inmates trapped behind bars would be unable to escape a raging fire. About 600 fires occur in prisons and jails every year, and one out of four is intentionally set.

Placing fire sprinklers in hard-to-reach spots and using institutional sprinkler heads can prevent acts of sabotage by reducing access to fragile parts.

Despite the care and upkeep a fire sprinkler system may require, there are still many things that can go wrong. if you aren’t aware of the signs that something might be wrong with it, then it is important to conduct an inspection as soon as possible. An unexpected or unwanted discharge will cost you more than money – it could cost lives, so it is crucial to keep a close watch on your fire systems to make sure they are working properly.

Dedicated To Your Fire Safety

Alex

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