19 Feb Maintaining Effective Sprinkler Heads
Sprinkler heads are largely responsible for detecting the presence of a fire at your commercial property and activating the sprinkler system’s water dispersal capabilities—thus suppressing the flames and mitigating damage.
Data from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) suggests that effective sprinkler systems can reduce total deaths and property loss from fire incidents by over 65%.
However, sprinkler heads must be properly maintained in order to operate correctly in the event of a fire. That’s why it’s important to take steps to ensure the effectiveness of your property’s sprinkler heads and keep them in good condition.
Review the following guidance to learn more about how sprinkler heads work, tips for making sure they operate successfully and maintenance best practices.
How Sprinkler Heads Work
When a fire occurs, sprinkler heads are triggered by heat (not smoke, contrary to popular belief). Sprinkler heads usually possess a glass bulb, filled with a glycerin-based liquid. This liquid expands upon interaction with hot air—typically between 135 F and 165 F. Once the heat from the flames rises to a sprinkler head, the glycerin-based liquid expands and shatters the glass bulb, activating the sprinkler system.
Sprinkler heads are attached to a pipe system that connects to a reliable water supply. When activated, a valve between the sprinkler head and the pipe system opens, allowing for pressurized water to be dispersed and suppress the flames.
Keep in mind that sprinkler heads are activated independently based on the glycerin-based liquid reaction within their individual glass bulbs. If the sprinkler heads across your property’s sprinkler system activate synchronously—regardless of the nature of the fire itself—you would likely experience water damage due to the unnecessary dispersal of water in areas that the flames didn’t spread to.
That being said, the size and location of the fire at your property will determine which sprinkler heads must activate in order to successfully suppress the flames.
Ensuring Sprinkler Head Effectiveness
To ensure the effectiveness of your property’s sprinkler heads, it’s important to keep them from being obstructed by other items or fixtures. Obstructed sprinkler heads could result in the following consequences:
- Poor detection capabilities—The sprinkler heads may be unable to properly detect the heat from a fire, thus delaying the activation of the sprinkler system or preventing it from activating altogether.
- Water dispersal failures—Even if the sprinkler system is able to activate, the sprinkler heads may be unable to adequately disperse water throughout the property and subsequently suppress the flames.
With these ramifications in mind, be sure to make sprinkler head clearance a priority at your property. NFPA 13 states that there should be at least 18 inches of clearance below all sprinkler heads.
In addition to these considerations, NFPA 33 states that you will need to implement extra sprinkler head precautions at your property if you utilize paint booths on-site. Specifically, paint booths can lead to overspray, which could damage any nearby sprinkler heads and render them ineffective.
This is because paint buildup on a sprinkler head’s glass bulb can prevent the bulb from bursting in the presence of hot air, blocking the sprinkler head from activating during a fire. To protect sprinkler heads located within or near paint booths, be sure to cover them with a thin paper bag or cellophane bag (no more than 0.003 inches thick) during painting operations.
Maintaining Sprinkler Heads
Proper maintenance is vital to keep your property’s sprinkler heads in good condition. NFPA 25 outlines the following maintenance guidelines for sprinkler heads:
- Develop a well-documented sprinkler system inspection program that includes having your sprinkler heads inspected at least annually for potential damages by a qualified professional. Schedule repairs as needed.
- Get your sprinkler heads tested by a qualified professional when necessary.
- Take note that either 1% of your property’s sprinkler heads or at least four sprinkler heads total (whichever number is greater) must be removed for testing. The removed sprinkler heads will serve as a representative sample of your overall sprinkler system during the test.
- Keep in mind that how often your sprinkler heads need to be tested (if at all) depends on your property’s operations and the type of sprinkler system you have. In addition, older sprinkler heads many need to be tested more frequently than newer sprinkler heads. Consult a qualified professional to determine appropriate testing intervals for your property’s sprinkler heads.
- Replace a sprinkler head if:
- Unrepairable leakages occur
- It displays signs of corrosion (e.g., discoloration, rust, foul-smelling odor or lowered water pressure)
- It gets physically damaged or tampered with
- The glass bulb cracks, shatters or leaks any glycerin-based liquid
- It gets clogged or becomes otherwise ineffective due to debris buildup (e.g., paint, dust or dirt)
- A qualified professional instructs you to do so
- Store at least six extra sprinkler heads and a sprinkler wrench at your property to allow for a quick replacement process in the event that any of your current sprinkler heads become damaged or compromised. Make sure these sprinkler heads are compatible with your property’s overall sprinkler system.
In the event that any of your sprinkler heads become damaged or compromised and a replacement sprinkler head isn’t immediately available, you may need to temporarily shut off your sprinkler system to reduce the risk of further water damage.
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This Risk Insights is not intended to be exhaustive nor should any discussion or opinions be construed as legal advice. Readers should contact legal counsel or an insurance professional for appropriate advice. © 2021 Zywave, Inc. All rights reserved.