Why is a sprinkler system needed?

Sprinkler systems are an invaluable tool for firefighting, proven to significantly reduce death and property loss in the event of a fire.  When combined with other early warning fire safety systems, automatic fire sprinklers are capable of reducing property damage, injuries, and death by more than 50% making them crucial in commercial buildings.

Although not necessarily mandated, there has been a growing trend to install fire sprinkler systems in homes as well as commercial and multi-residential buildings.

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Fire Sprinkler Initiative is an advocacy campaign aimed at increasing the number of new, one- and two-family homes protected by fire sprinklers.  This initiative helps stakeholders navigate the code-making and legislative process to get fire sprinkler requirements for new homes passed in their communities.

Since fire sprinkler systems are a fire code requirement for your commercial building, your insurance carrier will not offer a discount on your premium.  However, a recent poll of property and casualty insurers by Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition Canada (HFSC) showed that discounts as high as 35% are offered for homes with sprinklers.

Rules for sprinkler systems (Ontario)

The Ontario Building Code (OBC) contains a Chapter on sprinkler systems ( Automatic Sprinkler Systems) in which it outlines a set of criteria governing requirements for each type of building.  Based on the nature of building, type of occupancy and use, the OBC defines which buildings need to be sprinklered.

For example, a small one-storey plaza or single-family home is not likely to require sprinklers.  Once entering multiple occupancy, they are required.  Each type of building, i.e. commercial, storey residence; duplex will have their own compliance specifications.  The fire rating of building materials used in the construction of a building also factors into whether sprinkler systems are mandated.

In the case of a new building, the architect would adhere to current standards of the fire code (including fire sprinklers) as part of the construction package.  The code, which undergoes renewal every 3 years, also outlines the service and maintenance required.  Maintenance involves hiring a fire protection specialist to come and inspect and/or repair the system when required. The specialist will come and review the state of the sprinkler heads, valves, piping and any other components that impact the proper functioning of the system.  Understanding the importance of sprinkler systems underscores why proper maintenance and testing is necessary.  It will also ensure that your sprinkler systems are primed and ready to go should a fire emergency arise.

How Do Fire Sprinklers Work

1)  Fire Sprinklers Detect Heat

Fire sprinklers are not trigged by smoke but rather are activated by high heat.  When a blaze ignites, the air directly above heats rapidly.  This hot air rises and spreads along the ceiling.  When the air is hot enough and reaches a sprinkler head, it triggers a chain reaction.

Most sprinkler heads feature a glass bulb filled with a glycerin-based liquid.  This liquid expands when it comes in contact with air heated to between 135 and 165 degrees. When the liquid expands, it shatters its glass confines and the sprinkler head activates.

2) Fire Sprinklers Douse the Fire

Each sprinkler head is attached to a pipe that connects to a reliable water source outside the building.  When heat activates a sprinkler head, a valve opens, allowing pressurized water from the pipe system to flow out.  It’s important for water in a fire sprinkler system to be pressurized.  This allows the water to spray outward in an arc to more thoroughly douse the fire and prevent it from reigniting.

Foam Sprinkler Systems spray a mixture of water and foam which blocks oxygen and smothers the fire. This type of system is often used with high-hazard occupancies including workplaces with flammable liquid handling and storage or aircraft hangars.

3) Fire Sprinklers Minimize Water Damage

In movies, sprinkler systems are represented in a distorted way, leading many people to understand that all the sprinklers in a system are tied together and when one is triggered, all are activated.  If this were the case, putting out a fire would simply be trading fire damage for water damage, and it’s not how fire sprinklers work.

Fortunately, sprinkler heads function individually.   Most of the time, fires can be completely extinguished after just one or two sprinklers activate.  This allows water damage to be confined to the small area where the fire started.  Plus, since fire sprinklers douse fires with about six times less water than a fire hose, their quick action is actually less damaging to your property than a visit from the fire department.

Because a sprinkler system is designed to control or extinguish fires in the early stages, it is easier and safer for building occupants to exit the building and for firefighters to extinguish any fire that remains.  Sprinklers are effective in avoiding the loss of both life and property due to fire.

Cost of sprinkler systems

As stated above, the architect of a new building would incorporate all fire safety features in its design.  When pricing systems, it is advisable to obtain 3 quotes.  The Canadian Automatic Sprinkler Association (CASA) provides a list of all contractors in the industry.

The cost of a fire sprinkler system depends on numerous variables.  Some of the factors to take into consideration could include:

  • whether water entry is supplied to the building
  • water supply size of incoming service needed, i.e. 1” 1½”, 2”, up to 6 inches
  • age and condition of building
  • whether asbestos is in place
  • location, i.e. in or out of town
  • whether building is occupied, i.e. necessitating work at night or on weekends

In summary

When a fire is contained successfully, with the help of a fully operational sprinkler system, you can significantly minimize property damage and prevent severe injury or even death.