Fire sprinklers have long been the first line of defense against structural fires. And, in its most recent report on the U.S. Experience with Sprinklers, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) found that where sprinklers were installed, they were very effective at controlling fires 88 percent of the time. But what about the other 12 percent? Here, the data tells an important story.
In those fire incidents where the sprinklers failed to operate, three out of every five times, it was due to the water flow to the system having been shut off. In most of these cases, they were probably shut off to facilitate required testing and/or maintenance and never turned back on. The fact that this happens underscores the importance of sprinkler system monitoring. Monitoring is critical to catching problems like these and helps to ensure sprinkler systems will be operational and effective when needed.
Monitoring of the water flow, valve position, and system status are necessary in order to alert the fire department when a fire has triggered the sprinkler system or when a trouble condition occurs in the system. This post will provide an introduction to the monitoring requirements for fire sprinkler systems and describe the options you have for staying in compliance.
Where Do Sprinkler Monitoring Requirements Apply?
The short answer to this question is that pretty much anywhere a fire sprinkler system is required, monitoring is also required. And, even when an existing fire sprinkler system is not required, the system should still be monitored to ensure it will function as expected in the event of a fire.
The International Building Code (IBC) requires most sprinkler systems to be monitored by an approved supervising station in accordance with NFPA 72. However, there are some exceptions:
- Monitoring is not required for automatic sprinkler systems protecting one-and two-family dwellings.
- Monitoring is not required in limited area systems classified as Light Hazard or Ordinary Hazard Group 1, where the size of the automatic sprinkler system is relatively small and uses six or fewer sprinkler heads. However, this exception only applies if 1) there are no control valves installed between the water supply, and 2) sprinklers or any valves that are installed are of an approved type and secured in the open position.
- Automatic sprinkler systems installed in accordance with NFPA 13R Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems in Low-Rise Residential Occupancies (multi-family with three stories or less) are another exception. This exception applies where the water supply main is used to supply both domestic water and the sprinkler system, and the sprinkler system is not equipped with a separate shutoff valve.
- Monitoring is not required for pressure maintenance pumps (also known as jockey pumps) that are sealed or locked in the open position. Also, monitoring is not required for control valves to commercial kitchen hoods and spray paint booths that are sealed or locked in the open position.
- Monitoring is also not required for trim valves to pressure switches in dry pipe, pre-action, or deluge sprinkler systems provided they are sealed or locked in the open position.
Components of the System that Must be Monitored
The most recent requirements for sprinkler system monitoring can be found in Chapter 9 of the International Fire Code (IFC), which states that “valves controlling the water supply for automatic sprinkler systems, pumps, tanks, water levels and temperatures, critical air pressures, and water-flow switches on all sprinkler systems shall be electrically supervised.”
While not all of the valves in a sprinkler system require monitoring, NFPA 13 requires that any valves controlling the flow of water to any part of the system be open and monitored to ensure the flow of water to the sprinkler heads. Many of these valves are also required to be equipped with visual indicators to tell you whether the valve is open or closed. However, they still must be monitored because they are commonly located in areas that are not regularly visited.
Monitoring requirements focus mainly on valves, in part, because they are the most common problem contributing to system failure. However, monitoring of system status indicators is also required.
- Valves – Monitoring is required for sectional control and isolation valves, valves on water supply connections, and other valves in supply pipes to sprinklers and other stationary water-based fire suppression systems. Supervisory switches are used to monitor the open or closed position of valves that control the water supply in a fire sprinkler system. Supervisory switches are required to send a signal to the control panel if a valve is closed 20 percent or more of its total travel distance.
- System Status – Water pressure and flow in wet pipe fire sprinkler systems should also be monitored with vane or paddle-type waterflow detectors and pressure switches, which together can detect the ability of water to flow through the system and trigger an alarm signal in the event of a problem. In dry pipe and preaction systems, the air pressure and water temperature in circulating closed-loop systems must also be monitored. If either of these components fails, pipes could freeze and burst and/or ice could form in the pipes restricting water flow to the sprinkler heads. If the water source for the system includes tanks, water levels and the temperature in the tanks must also be monitored.
NFPA 13 Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems allows for either electronic or manual monitoring (referred to in the code as “supervision”).
Electronically supervised fire sprinkler systems provide a direct connection between your building’s sprinkler heads and the control panel. This connection is made with devices, such as tamper switches, that will trigger a signal to the fire alarm control panel indicating abnormal conditions that could affect the proper operation of an automatic sprinkler system. When the fire alarm control panel receives the signal, trained staff in the supervisory station quickly assess the signal and contact emergency services if needed. Options for electronic supervision include:
- Central Supervising Stations – These are monitoring stations that meet the UL 827 Standard for Central Station Alarm Services, which requires more stringent standards than remote station monitoring. Central supervising station monitoring services are by far the most common method for fire alarm monitoring services and can only be obtained by a UL-listed provider.
- Remote Supervising Stations – While similar to central supervising stations, remote supervising stations put the responsibility for installation, inspection, testing, and maintenance of the alarm monitoring the sprinkler system on the owner. The system is also required to be monitored 24/7.
- Proprietary Supervising Stations – Proprietary supervising stations are those that protect multiple properties under the same ownership, which may or may not be contiguous. As with the other types of supervising stations, the personnel staffing them must be properly trained to assess and respond to sprinkler system signals.
NFPA 13 will allow manual supervision in lieu of electronic supervision if all valves are locked, sealed, and tagged to prevent unauthorized closing. This includes any valves located inside fenced enclosures and under the control of the owner. One of the drawbacks of manual supervision is that it requires much more vigilance to ensure compliance. For example, seals must be checked every week, and locks on all valves must be checked once a month. While it adds complexity to the monitoring effort, it is advisable to use individually keyed locks for each valve and to distribute keys only to those directly responsible for the system. Manual supervision is generally not as reliable as electronic supervision due to the reliance upon a human to detect a problem that may not be apparent. Combined with the extra effort required for manual monitoring, these reasons are why most businesses opt for electronically supervised systems.
Koorsen Can Help You Choose the Best Option
Contact Koorsen today to learn more about the wide range of fire sprinkler technology and service options we can provide to protect your business. We offer factory-trained and certified technicians that can install and maintain sprinkler systems customized to your facility. Our round-the-clock, UL/FM-approved central station monitoring means that the moment your sprinklers are enabled, our operators will notify the authorities and provide them with all the important information they need for a fast and effective response.