While sprinklers have been used for the protection of property such as mills, factories, warehouses and department stores for more than 140 years there is now a growing recognition of their effectiveness in improving levels of life safety in other types of buildings. The 2006 version of Approved Document B of the Building Regulations (in England and Wales) incorporates clear recognition of the value of sprinklers in improving levels of safety for occupants as well as preventing the spread of fire.
Other developments have demonstrated the value of sprinklers in providing additional levels of safety for fire fighters in large, complex structures or in buildings where the fire load is excessive. With the incorporation of the latest fast-response sprinkler heads, there is clear evidence that, even in the compartment of origin of a fire, occupants of sprinklered buildings enjoy a significant additional measure of life safety.
Benefits for designers and builders
One of the most often ignored benefits of sprinklers is the additional flexibility which this equipment provides to designers and builders. In unconventional or unusual buildings including sprinklers in a specification will often enable Building Regulations compliance to be achieved in a very cost-effective manner. Where changes of use are being anticipated, utilising sprinklers is often the only way in which means of escape requirements can be provided. In other situations, the freedom architects seek to implement a stylish or unorthodox design can only be accomplished using sprinklers.
Sprinklers have also been used as a compensating feature in developments where the Building Regulations cannot be complied with in respect of means of escape or access for the Fire and Rescue Service. Some projects have even reported that providing sprinklers has resulted in a cost saving where the building authority has permitted trade-offs in respect of means of escape facilities.
Sprinklers are also ideal for protecting buildings constructed from non-traditional materials such as those constructed wholly or largely from timber or using recycled materials.
Sprinkler systems can be very effective in controlling fires. They can be designed to protect life and/or property and may be regarded as a cost-effective solution for reducing the risks created by fire. Where installed, a sprinkler system is usually part of a package of fire precautions in a building and may form an integral part of the fire strategy for the building.
Sprinkler protection could give additional benefits, such as a reduction in the amount of portable firefighting equipment necessary, and the relaxation of restrictions in the design of buildings.
Although an automatic sprinkler system usually extends throughout a building or plant, it should not be assumed that this entirely obviates the need for other means of fire protection and it is important to consider the fire precautions of the premises as a whole. Account shall be taken of possible interaction between sprinkler systems and other fire protection measures.
The design and installation of new sprinkler systems and the maintenance of all systems is given in the Loss Prevention Council.
(LPC) Rules or BS EN 12845: Fixed firefighting systems — Automatic Sprinkler systems – design, installation and maintenance, and should only be carried out by a competent person. Routine maintenance by on-site personnel may include checking of pressure gauges, alarm systems, water supplies, any anti-freezing devices and automatic booster pump(s). A competent maintenance contractor should provide guidance on what records need to be completed.
The standard specifies requirements and gives recommendations for the design, installation and maintenance of fixed fire sprinkler systems in buildings and industrial plant, and particular requirements for sprinkler systems, which are integral to measures for the protection of life.
The requirements and recommendations of the standard are also applicable to any addition, extension, repair or other modification to a sprinkler system. They are not applicable to water spray or deluge systems. It covers the classification of hazards, provision of water supplies, components to be used, installation and testing of the system, maintenance, and the extension of existing systems, and identifies construction details of buildings which are the minimum necessary for satisfactory performance of sprinkler systems complying with the standard.
Following a sprinkler operation
Sprinkler systems should be reinstated by a competent person. Spare sprinkler bulbs should be available on site for replacements, preferably in a separate building. If a sprinkler system forms an integral part of your fire strategy, it is imperative that adequate management procedures are in place to cater for those periods when the sprinkler system is not functional. This should form part of your emergency plan. Although the actual procedures will vary, such measures may include the following:
- Restore the system to full working order as soon as possible.
- Limit any planned shutdown to low-risk periods when numbers of people are at a minimum (e.g. at night) or when the building is not in use. This is particularly important when sprinklers are installed to a life safety standard or form part of the fire safety engineering requirements.
- You may need to isolate the area without the benefit of working sprinklers from the rest of the premises by fire-resisting material.
- Avoid higher-risk processes such as ‘hot-work’.
- Extra staff should be trained and dedicated to conducting fire patrols.
- Any phased or staged evacuation strategy may need to be suspended; evacuation should be immediate and complete. (Exercise caution as the stairway widths may have been designed for phased evacuation only.)
- Inform the local Fire and Rescue Service.
- If, having considered all possible measures, the risk is still unacceptable then it will be necessary to close all or part of the building. If in doubt you should seek guidance from a competent person.