A fire sprinkler system is an active fire protection measure, consisting of a water supply, providing adequate pressure and flowrate to a water distribution piping system, onto which fire sprinklers are connected. Although historically only used in factories and large buildings, home and small building systems are now available at a relatively cost-effective price.
The world’s first sprinkler system was installed in the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in the United Kingdom in 1812. The systems consisted of a cylindrical airtight reservoir of 400 hogsheads (~95,000 litres) fed by a 10in (250mm) water main which branched to all parts of the theatre. A series of smaller pipes feed from the distribution pipe were pierced with a series of 1/2" (15mm) holes which pour water in the event of a fire.
From 1852 to 1885, perforated pipe systems were used in textile mills throughout New England as a means of fire protection. However, they were not automatic systems; they did not turn on by themselves. Inventors first began experimenting with automatic sprinklers around 1860. The first automatic sprinkler system was patented by Philip W. Pratt of Abington, MA, in 1872.
Henry S. Parmalee of New Haven, Connecticut is considered the inventor of the first automatic sprinkler head. Parmalee improved upon the Pratt patent and created a better sprinkler system. In 1874, he installed his fire sprinkler system into the piano factory that he owned. Frederick Grinnell improved Parmalee's design and in 1881 patented the automatic sprinkler that bears his name. He continued to improve the device and in 1890 invented the glass disc sprinkler, essentially the same as that in use today.
Until the 1940s, sprinklers were installed almost exclusively for the protection of commercial buildings, whose owners were generally able to recoup their expenses with savings in insurance costs. Over the years, fire sprinklers have become mandatory safety equipment North America,in certain occupancies, including, but not limited to newly constructed hospitals, schools, hotels and other public buildings, subject to the local building codes and enforcement. However, outside of the US and Canada, sprinklers are rarely mandated by building codes for normal hazard occupancies which do not have large numbers of occupants (e.g. factories, process lines, retail outlets, petrol stations etc)
Sprinklers have been in use in the United States since 1874, and were used in factory applications where fires at the turn of the century were often catastrophic in terms of both human and property losses. In the US, sprinklers are today required in all new high rise and underground buildings generally 75 feet (23 m) above or below fire department access, where the ability of firefighters to provide adequate hose streams to fires is limited.
Sprinklers may be required to be installed by building codes, or may be recommended by insurance companies to reduce potential property losses or business interruption. Building codes in the United States for places of assembly, generally over 100 persons, and places with overnight sleeping accommodation such as hotels, nursing homes, dormitories, and hospitals usually require sprinklers.
If building codes do not explicitly mandate the use of fire sprinklers, the code often makes it highly advantageous to install them as an optional system. Most standard US building codes (UBC and IBC included) allow for less expensive construction materials, larger floor area limitations, longer egress paths, and fewer requirements for fire rated construction in structures protected by fire sprinklers. Consequently, the total building cost it is often less by installing a sprinkler system and savings money in the other aspects of the project, as compared to building a non-sprinklered structure.
Each closed-head sprinkler is held closed by either a heat-sensitive glass bulb (see below) or a two-part metal link held together with fusible alloy. The glass bulb or link applies pressure to a pip cap which acts as a plug which prevents water from flowing until the ambient temperature around the sprinkler reaches the design activation temperature of the individual sprinkler head. Because each sprinkler activates independently when the predetermined heat level is reached, the number of sprinklers that operate is limited to only those near the fire, thereby maximizing the available water pressure over the point of fire origin.
A sprinkler activation will do less damage than a fire department hose stream, which provide approximately 900 liters/min (250 US gallons/min). A typical sprinkler used for industrial manufacturing occupancies discharge about 75-150 litres/min (20-40 US gallons/min). However, a typical Early Suppression Fast Response (ESFR) sprinkler at a pressure of 50 psi (345 kPa) will discharge approximately 100 US gallons per minute, (380 litres per minute). In addition, a sprinkler will usually activate between one and four minutes, whereas the fire department typically takes at least five minutes to arrive at the fire site after receiving an alarm, and an additional ten minutes to set up equipment and apply hose streams to the fire. This additional time can result in a much larger fire, requiring much more water to achieve extinguishment.
Sprinkler systems are intended to either control the fire or to suppress the fire. Control mode sprinklers are intended to control the heat release rate of the fire to prevent building structure collapse, and pre-wet the surrounding combustibles to prevent fire spread. The fire is not extinguished until the burning combustibles are exhausted or manual extinguishment is effected by firefighters. Suppression mode sprinklers (formerly known as Early Suppression Fast Response (ESFR) sprinklers) are intended to result in a severe sudden reduction of the heat release rate of the fire, followed quickly by complete extinguishment, prior to manual intervention.
Operation - When an automatic sprinkler is exposed to sufficient heat, the heat sensitive element (glass bulb or fusible link) releases, allowing water to flow from that sprinkler. Sprinklers are manufactured to react to a specific range of temperatures. Only sprinklers subjected to a temperature at or above their specific temperature rating will operate.s
Water is not present in the piping until the system operates. The piping is pressurized with air, at a "maintenance" pressure which is relatively low compared with the water supply pressure. To prevent the larger water supply pressure from forcing water into the piping, the design of the dry pipe valve (a specialized type of check valve) intentionally includes a larger valve clapper area exposed to the maintenance air pressure, as compared to the water pressure.
Operation - When one or more of the automatic sprinklers is exposed to sufficient heat, it opens, allowing the maintenance air to vent from that sprinkler. Each sprinkler operates individually. As the air pressure in the piping drops, the pressure differential across the dry pipe valve changes, allowing water to enter the piping system. Water flow from sprinklers needed to control the fire is delayed until the air is vented from the sprinklers. For this reason, dry pipe systems are usually not as effective as wet pipe systems in fire control during the initial stages of the fire.
Some view dry pipe sprinklers as advantageous for protection of collections and other water sensitive areas. This perceived benefit is due to a fear that a physically damaged wet pipe system will leak, while dry pipe systems will not. However, dry pipe systems will only provide a slight delay prior to water discharge while the air in the piping is released prior to the water filling the pipe.
Disadvantages of using dry pipe fire sprinkler systems include:
Water is not present in the piping until the system operates. Because the sprinkler orifices are open, the piping is at atmospheric pressure. To prevent the water supply pressure from forcing water into the piping, a deluge valve is used in the water supply connection, which is a mechanically latched valve. It is a non-resetting valve, and stays open once tripped.
Because the heat sensing elements present in the automatic sprinklers have been removed (resulting in open sprinklers), the deluge valve must be opened as signaled by a specialized fire alarm system. The type of fire alarm initiating device is selected mainly based on the hazard (e.g., smoke detectors, heat detectors, or optical flame detectors). The initiation device signals the fire alarm panel, which in turn signals the deluge valve to open. Activation can also be manual, depending on the system goals. Manual activation is usually via an electric or pneumatic fire alarm pull station, which signals the fire alarm panel, which in turn signals the deluge valve to open.
Operation - Activation of a fire alarm initiating device, or a manual pull station, signals the fire alarm panel, which in turn signals the deluge valve to open, allowing water to enter the piping system. Water flows from all sprinklers simultaneously.
Pre-action sprinkler systems are specialized for use in locations where accidental activation is undesired, such as in museums with rare art works, manuscripts, or books; and Data Centers, for protection of computer equipment from accidental water discharge.
Pre-action systems are hybrids of wet, dry, and deluge systems, depending on the exact system goal. There are two main sub-types of pre-action systems: single interlock, and double interlock. The operation of single interlock systems are similar to dry systems except that these systems require that a “preceding” and supervised event (typically the activation of a heat or smoke detector) takes place prior to the “action” of water introduction into the system’s piping due to opening of the pre-action valve (which is a mechanically latched valve). Once the fire is detected by the fire alarm system, the system is essentially converted from a dry system into a wet system. Or, if an automatic sprinkler operated prior to the fire being detected by the fire alarm system, water will be allowed into the piping, and will discharge water from the sprinkler.
The operation of double interlock systems are similar to deluge systems except that automatic sprinklers are used. These systems require that both a “preceding” and supervised event (typically the activation of a heat or smoke detector), and an automatic sprinkler activation take place prior to the “action” of water introduction into the system’s piping. There is also a little used variation known as Non-Interlock.
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Most sprinkler systems installed today are designed using an area and density approach. First the building use and building contents are analyzed to determine the level of fire hazard. Usually buildings are classified as light hazard, ordinary hazard group 1, ordinary hazard group 2, extra hazard group 1, or extra hazard group 2. After determining the hazard classification, a design area and density can be determined by referencing tables in the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards. The design area is a theoretical area of the building representing the worst case area where a fire could burn. The design density is a measurement of how much water per square foot of floor area should be applied to the design area. For example, in an office building classified as light hazard, a typical design area would be 1500 square feet and the design density would be 0.1 gallons per minute per square foot or a minimum of 150 gallons per minute applied over the 1500 square foot design area. Another example would be a manufacturing facility classified as ordinary hazard group 2 where a typical design area would be 1500 square feet and the design density would be 0.2 gallons per minute per square foot or a minimum of 300 gallons per minute applied over the 1500 square foot design area.
After the design area and density have been determined, calculations are performed to prove that the system can deliver the required amount of water over the required design area. These calculations account for all of the pressure that is lost or gained between the water supply source and the sprinklers that would operate in the design area. This includes pressure losses due to friction inside the piping and losses or gains due to elevational differences between the source and the discharging sprinklers. Sometimes momentum pressure from water velocity inside the piping is also calculated. Typically these calculations are performed using computer software but before the advent of computer systems these sometimes complicated calculations were performed by hand. This skill of calculating sprinkler systems by hand is still required training for a sprinkler system design Technologist who seeks senior level certification from engineering certification organizations such as the National Institute for Certification in Engineering Technologies (NICET).
Sprinkler systems in residential structures are becoming more common as the cost of such systems becomes more practical and the benefits become more obvious. Residential sprinkler systems usually fall under a residential classification separate from the commercial classifications mentioned above. A commercial sprinkler system is designed to protect the structure and the occupants from a fire. Most residential sprinkler systems are primarily designed to suppress a fire in such a way to allow for the safe escape of the building occupants. While these systems will often also protect the structure from major fire damage, this is a secondary consideration. In residential structures sprinklers are often omitted from closets, bathrooms, balconies, garages and attics because a fire in these areas would not usually impact the occupant's escape route.
If water damage or water volume is of particular concern, a technique called Water Mist Fire Suppression may be an alternative. This technology has been under development for over 50 years. It hasn't entered general use, but is gaining some acceptance on ships and in a few residential applications. Mist suppression systems work by lowering the temperature of a burning area through evaporation rather than "soaking". As such, they may be designed to only slow the spread of a fire and not extinguish it. Some tests, that may or may not be biased, showed the cost of resulting fire and water damage with such a system installed to be dramatically less than conventional sprinkler systems.
According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), fires in hotels with sprinklers averaged 78% less damage than fires in hotels without them (1983-1987). The NFPA says the average loss per fire in buildings with sprinklers was $2,300, compared to an average loss of $10,300 in unsprinklered buildings. The NFPA adds that there is no record of a fatality in a fully sprinklered building outside the point of fire origin. However, in a purely economic comparison, this is not a complete picture; the total costs of fitting, and the costs arising from non-fire triggered release must be factored.
The NFPA states that it "has no record of a fire killing more than two people in a completely sprinklered building where a sprinkler system was properly operating, except in an explosion or flash fire or where industrial fire brigade members or employees were killed during fire suppression operations."
The world's largest fire sprinkler manufacturer is the SimplexGrinnell division of Tyco International, other manufacturers / suppliers include The Viking Corporation, Victaulic, NNI Inc, P.u.P. Feuerschutz und Anlagenbau GmbH and Reliable Sprinkler Company
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