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Commercial Fire Sprinkler Design

"How To Select, Design, And Maintain Your Commercial Sprinkler System"

Installing a fire sprinkler system isn't just a matter of ordering a system-especially if it's for a commercial, and not a residential, building. Commercial buildings have different needs and risk levels for fire prevention-and the fire sprinkler system must be tailored to your building and business.

This article is for the owner who's serious about getting a fire sprinkler system installed. We'll go over fire sprinkler design-although we strongly suggest you bring in a professional on this, it's still good for business owners to know what's involved. We'll also talk about the basic types of commercial fire sprinklers, and how to keep your system in good working order.

Fire Sprinkler Design In Three Basic Steps

We'd be lying if we said these were three easy steps. But fire sprinkler design can be done in these three basic steps:

1. Rate your building's hazard level

Fire risk classification puts buildings in the following categories:

  • Light hazard
  • Ordinary hazard group 1
  • Ordinary hazard group 2
  • Extra hazard group 1
  • Extra hazard group 2

To determine your building's hazard level, you'll need to consider these things:

  • What the building's made of.
  • Number of people living or working there.
  • Stored materials.
  • Whether activities done in the building involve combustibles or a heat source.
  • Ceiling heights.
  • Exit accessibility.
  • Number of floors and rooms.
2. Find your design area

First, ask yourself: Where is the worst possible place in your building for a fire? This is the place where a fire would be most dangerous-not where damage would be most costly.

Then, assume the entire building is as high-risk as the danger zone. Use it as your benchmark in calculating how much water your fire sprinkler design must deliver per square metre. Which brings us to the next step:

3. Decide the fire sprinkler design you'll need

To do this, you'll need to be good at math-or have the right software. Professional calculations account for all the things that affect your water pressure-including your building's height, piping material and length, and the location of the water pump.

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Wet Pipe vs. Dry Pipe Fire Sprinklers

Wet and dry-pipe are two different types of fire sprinklers you'll see on the market. They both do the same thing, but there are some significant differences in how they operate and in where they're best used.

Wet-pipe fire sprinklers have water constantly inside the pipes connected to the sprinkler heads. Activating the fire sprinklers is simply a matter of opening the valves on the sprinkler heads-so wet-pipe fire sprinklers get water onto the fire more efficiently.

Wet-pipe fire sprinklers are almost always used in residences, and in many commercial buildings as well. While all fire sprinklers require maintenance, wet-pipe fire sprinklers are typically easier to maintain than dry-pipe fire sprinklers, and tend to be less expensive overall.

Dry-pipe fire sprinklers have compressed air in their pipes. The pipes are connected to a storage tank or water main with a pressure-sensitive valve. When activated, the sprinkler heads open, causing the compressed air to rush forward and forcing the pressure in the pipes to drop. This activates the valve, sending water through the pipes. Although this method is slightly less efficient than wet-pipe systems, the water still exits the pipes quickly enough to deal with most fires.

Dry-pipe fire sprinklers are often used in commercial buildings especially sensitive to water damage. They're also more common in unheated buildings in colder climates where wet pipes could freeze and burst in the winter. Wet-pipe fire sprinklers are still more common in cold-climate homes, because homes are generally heated throughout the winter.

Pre-Action Fire Sprinkler System -
Safer Than Wet-Pipe?

Pre-action fire sprinkler systems are similar to dry-pipe fire sprinkler systems, because there is no water in the pipes unless a fire activates the system. A pre-action system is hooked up to a water source via a pre-action valve that contains its own fire detection device. To activate, the valve must sense the fire and release the water, and the sprinkler heads must also activate.

Buildings with contents that are particularly sensitive to water damage-data centres, museums, art galleries, rare book libraries, and the like-generally prefer pre-action fire sprinkler systems because there is perceived to be more protection against accidental discharge. Pre-action fire sprinkler systems have two sensors to trip in case of a fire, not just one.

However, the danger of a wet-pipe system triggering accidentally is in fact quite remote. Only about one in sixteen million fire sprinkler systems has a manufacturing defect. And the amount of heat needed to activate wet-pipe sprinkler heads is difficult to produce without lighting an actual fire.

Pre-action fire sprinkler systems, on the other hand, are much more complex than wet-pipe fire sprinkler systems. They require heavier maintenance, and are often considered less reliable in the industry because improper maintenance can lead to a failure to discharge in case of a fire.

The bottom line is that wet pipe fire sprinkler systems are safer and more reliable than most people realize. Water damage tends to be minimal-statistics show that a single sprinkler head controls most fires. Even with sensitive equipment, a wet pipe fire sprinkler system may still be the best fire protection for you.

How To Prevent Fire Sprinkler Systems
From Freezing

If your buildings are located in an area where temperatures dip below freezing in winter, you'll need to take some preventive steps to protect your fire sprinkler system's pipes, pumps and valves during the cold season. Here are the main points for developing an effective cold-weather maintenance plan.

Many businesses that keep their buildings constantly heated use wet-pipe fire sprinkler systems, even in cold climates-wet-pipe fire sprinkler systems tend to be less expensive and easier to maintain. However, even with a heated building, a draft near your piping can cause a freeze-up.

Survey your building to identify any weak points in your insulation, as well as possible leaks in windows, doors, floors, and roofs. Stairwells, the space above a dropped ceiling, and attic areas are all particularly prone to freezing, even in heated buildings. In addition, make sure snow does not build up on your roof or too close to your walls.

Businesses with unheated buildings in cold climates typically use dry-pump fire sprinkler systems. But even without water in the pipes, the system's valves, pumps, water tanks, and drip drains are prone to damage in cold weather if not properly maintained.

Make sure your drip drain is checked and drained as needed-even if your fire sprinkler systems haven't been tripped, condensation can build up and freeze. Ideally, you should heat pump rooms, valve rooms, and water tanks to a temperature of 4.5°C.

Keeping Your Fire Sprinkler System In Working Order: The Building Owner's Responsibility

A commercial fire sprinkler system's effectiveness diminishes significantly if it's not properly maintained. And this could lead to financial issues, including higher insurance rates and legal trouble if a fire does break out.

The specifics of your commercial fire sprinkler system's regular maintenance procedure will vary depending on the type of system you have. However, most commercial fire sprinkler systems have a few basic maintenance needs.

Monthly tasks

Monthly maintenance includes checking the pressure in the pipes, and making sure valves are undamaged and in the right position (either open or closed).

Required tests

A main drain test should be conducted at least once a year. This test measures the flow of water to determine whether there is an interruption in the pipes, such as a frozen section, broken pipe, or other obstruction.

Common sense

Common-sense measures include making sure all your sprinkler heads are undamaged, unrestricted, and have not been painted over.

Conduct a system review

If the usage of your building changes, your commercial fire sprinkler system may also have to change. These systems are designed particularly for the usage of a building. If your sprinklers were designed for an office, and if you now use the building primarily for warehousing, for example, bring in a professional to ensure that your commercial fire sprinkler system is still the right type for your usage.

A fire sprinkler system is the single most important method of protecting your business from fire. The system will need some attention throughout its life to make sure it's still working smoothly. However, you'll find that the first fire your system prevents is worth the light maintenance and upkeep.

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