Your fire suppression system can prevent expensive damage to your assets and facilities. Even more importantly, it can save lives.
But only if it works.
To ensure your fire suppression is there when you need it, you need to know the potential problems, why they happen, and how to make sure they don't.
Fire sprinklers and other suppression systems are designed to be reliable under extreme conditions, but things can and do go wrong without the right preventive maintenance program.
Problems with fire suppression
In colder climates, traditional wet pipe sprinkler systems can be susceptible to icing, which causes the pipes to expand and contract, eventually leading to cracks and leaks.
Facilities in warmer climates, though, are not immune. A sudden cold snap can cause freezing in poorly insulated pipes.
In most cases, the combination of oxygen and water is the culprit. Many cities add oxygen to their water as a part of the treatment process, and although it makes the water taste better, it also rusts the pipes.
In an interview with Buildings, Jeff Harrington, President and CEO at Harrington Group, a fire protection engineering firm, explained, “If you have a significant amount of oxygen and water coexisting inside your steel pipes, you can have corrosion and pitting all the way through the pipe wall in less than five years.”
Here, the installation becomes improper over time. When the facility is first designed and constructed, it's for a specific set of purposes, and the type and placement of the fire suppression system reflect that.
If you renovate or start using the facility for a different purpose, but you don't update the fire system, it might no longer be appropriate or adequate. For example, when a downtown industrial space is converted to condos or someone sets us a tool and dye shop in a basement.
It doesn't have to be major renovations, either. In some cases, adding in new lighting or a large asset can block the existing sprinkler heads, making it less likely they can detect a fire early on.
There's no such thing as a perfect, one-size-fits-all fire suppression system, and if you have the wrong one for your facility, it can be worse than not having one at all. You have a false sense of security without any real protection.
For example, a wet pipe system might be the right choice for most of your facility, but not the unheated underground parking garage, where temperatures can drop below freezing.
Lack of maintenance
A report by the National Fire Prevention Association (NFPA) reveals that lack of maintenance is a leading factor in incidents where the fire sprinkler system failed to turn on or where the system was ineffective.
The stakes are high for fire suppression, but at the same time, it is often difficult to notice problems with the systems. Unlike lighting and HVAC, there are often no outward signs of issues, and then "out of sight, out of mind" takes over.
Effects of a faulty fire sprinkler system
NFPA research reveals that in 4% of cases where a fire sprinkler system was activated, it failed to work effectively. In over half the cases, the water never reached the fire.
Sometimes, the system is not working properly, and the decreased water pressure means limited dispersion. Other times, there is enough pressure, but the sprinklers are in the wrong spots, and the fire is too far away.
Disruption in operations
When the fire suppression system fails, the fire continues to rage until the fire department arrives and puts it out. During that time, the fire can spread quickly through a facility, destroying some assets and equipment while only damaging others.
Even a small fire can cause a lot of damage, and your operations are affected for days, weeks, or even months.
A faulty fire sprinkler system puts you in danger of not only fire but also water damage from burst or leaking pipes.
Even a small leak can do serious damage if you don't find it quickly. For example, a crack in a pipe 1/8" in diameter can release 250 gallons of water in a single day. According to a white paper from Chubb, a global insurance provider, the average cost of water damage in a commercial property is $89,000.
How to keep your buildings safe
Your best solution to avoiding all these problems is regular inspections and preventative maintenance for your fire suppression systems.
Set up regular inspections to confirm the control valves are open, the gauges are functioning correctly, and there is nothing blocking the sprinkler heads. Technicians should also check for visible signs of damage or possible corrosion.
Make sure to bring in an accredited sprinkler inspector to perform annual inspections.
During an annual inspection, the inspector checks the entire system, including:
- Calibrating the gauges
- Making sure the water supply is unobstructed
- Identifying damaged sprinkler heads and rusted pipes
- Checking for any parts needing replacement
Keep records of the results of these inspections in your facility maintenance software system. Missing, incomplete, or outdated records make it more difficult to maintain the system properly. They vary by location, but there are also likely compliance requirements, and good records make it much easier to prove your department carried out the right checks and tests.
Along with conducting regular inspections, the facilities team should also assess the status of other safety-related concerns, including:
- Making sure fire exits are clearly marked and easily accessible
- Ensuring fire extinguishers are installed in the correct locations
- Checking the smoke and carbon monoxide detectors are functioning
It's a good idea to generate a new work order for even the smallest of fixes. That way, the maintenance team can see if there are recurring small issues that might be signs of larger problems. For example, if there's a piece that techs always find themselves tightening, it could be a sign that the pipe has started to corrode.
Preventive maintenance software and safety
The right software makes it a lot easier to create maintenance inspections and tasks as well as keep reliable, accessible records of all your work.
The process starts with building out data-packed preventive maintenance work orders that have everything techs need to work consistently, efficiently, including:
Comprehensive asset data, including maintenance history
- Step-by-step instructions
- Customizable checklists
- Associated parts and materials
- Digital images, schematics, and O&M manuals
- Interactive site maps and floor plans
And using templates, you can quickly copy everything over into new PMs.
For scheduling, it's as easy as drag-and-drop on the CMMS calendar. Everyone can see what's due and when.
Although there is a lot that can go wrong, according to the NFPA, sprinklers effectively controlled the fire 96% of the time they were activated.
If you've been thinking of making the jump to preventive maintenance, now's the time to reach out to providers and get the conversation started. Once they've had a chance to hear about your current processes and challenges, they can explain your options and help you find the maintenance management software that works best for you.