If it can go wrong, it might . . .

Nobody wants anything to go wrong.  Unfortunately, in the fire protection industry, when something does go wrong, it is big news, and when it goes right, it isn’t news at all.  Fire and life safety, including people’s lives, property, livelihoods, and firefighter safety, are not issues to be taken lightly.

Many of the following thoughts apply to the different types of fire protection or fire protection systems, but will focus on sprinkler systems.

I started designing sprinkler systems in 1975, as a designer for a sprinkler contractor, and did that continuously until about 1994 when I hired other NICET designers to work with me.  In 1989, I started my own consulting business with the premise that maybe I could work with architects, engineers, and directly with building owners to put together better bid documents, making life easier for the sprinkler contractors, and possibly putting a better project together.  It didn’t take long to find out that most design teams don’t want to pay the fees for the specialized, upfront design we are capable of when a contractor includes the design cost in their bid.  Of course, those design teams don’t realize that the contractors are not bidding “apples-to-apples,” fire and building code issues have not been reviewed, they don’t have any or accurate water flow information, or they don’t have the hazards classified the same as their competition, and so on (add your own experiences losing a job here).

To make a long story short, in about 1995 I investigated my first sprinkler system that did not control a fire in a restaurant.  Since then, although it is only a small part of our business, I have been involved with some aspect of the investigation of over 300 sprinkler or suppression system losses – from freeze ups to systems and sprinklers that operated when they shouldn’t have or didn’t operate when or how they should have.  Interestingly, I am paid a great deal more money to try to figure out what went wrong than I would ever get trying to put good bid documents together.

Futrell Fire Consult & Design, Inc., in Osseo, Minnesota, still develops bid documents, we also design sprinkler systems, we teach sprinkler system design, we review sprinkler system designs for municipalities or other engineering firms, and much more.  The difference between us and most other fire protection consultants now is we are NICET (Level III and IV) designers and Fire Protection Engineers with “hands on” design experience and we investigate system failures.

Our bid documents and plan reviews incorporate the things that we see from investigations and losses.  It is obvious that these “bad” things are not usually intentional (unfortunately, that does happen), but in general they happen because several things come together that could have been prevented, or an unpreventable event occurs with preventable factors.  The result of us incorporating the fixes for the “bad” things we’ve found into our bid documents or plan reviews is that the costs of the systems do go up and we endure a good deal of negative feedback because the costs are higher or the reviews are more thorough.  However, the costs don’t go up nearly as high as the cost of a loss.

If you are faced with a loss, several things can happen.  You can lose time and money to the investigation: you usually don’t get paid back, but the attorneys and consultants get paid; you lose time and money you could be using on a paying project; your insurance costs can go up; our industry can have a strike against it; a good project can quickly become a “loser;” subsequent business can be lost; and more.

For example, I was called to investigate a sprinkler pipe that froze and broke in a home.  The home was complete and scheduled to be in the Parade of Homes.  The large general contractor (several hundred homes a year) had a residential sprinkler system installed at the request of the city because of fire department access concerns.  To make a long story short, the sprinkler system was installed in an unheated attic (we are in Minnesota here, and one morning I woke up to the thermometer reading -36°F), and the sprinkler contractor’s contract excluded insulation.  They installed the sprinkler pipes as much as 18” above the finished ceiling in the attic, and the insulator wrapped the pipes with insulation and then blew additional insulation under and over that, effectively insulating the sprinkler system from the heat.  At least two of the sprinkler pipes froze and broke, causing water damage in the tens of thousands of dollars range.  When I talked to the general contractor, he said, “That was the first, and the last, sprinkler system we will put in a house.”  Enough said, right?

What is the point of the example?  A little forethought and a little coordination might have avoided a loss, an unhappy customer, and a strike against sprinklers.  You can assess blame if you want, based on the little information provided, but water-filled pipes in an unheated attic, far above the finish ceiling and wrapped with insulation, would all seem to be foreseeable and preventable.  In addition, what are the chances, over the life of the home, that a cable installer, an electrician, a homeowner, a satellite installer, or someone else would be in the attic and disturb the insulation, uncovering the sprinkler pipe, and allowing it to freeze?

The same goes with many of the other losses.  If you can imagine it, we may have seen it – and some things you probably never thought of, too.  In this short article I cannot begin to list all of the examples, discuss what you should watch out for, tell you what we’ve seen, make suggestions or recommendations, or discuss inspection, testing, and maintenance.  But, think about it: from the lack of flushing of underground mains, to freezing conditions, and hazards that exceed the system design, you probably have in your own mind the types of things that can negatively impact sprinkler system design, installation, and maintenance, and cause you and our industry problems.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Scott A. Futrell, PE, FSFPE, CFPS, SET, CFEI, is a fire protection consultant with Futrell Fire Consult & Design, Inc., in Osseo, Minnesota and has over 40 years’ experience designing, specifying, and investigating fire protection systems. He is a Fellow in the Society of Fire Protection Engineers and co-author of “Designers Guide to Automatic Sprinkler Systems.”