What are the Barriers to Sprinklers on Construction Sites?

Lack of Clarity Impedes Progress in Construction Fire Safety

Construction is a huge investment, imagine putting in the time, resources and labor necessary to complete your project only to have it razed by fire, or worse, have that fire take lives such as the two insulators in the Denver, Colorado fire that took place in November 2018. With the large loss fires of St. Paul, Minnesota, Everett, Washington, and Somerville, New Jersey happening this summer our attention is once again raised and our industry is wondering what are the next steps and are sprinklers during construction a solution?

NFSA Weighs In

The National Fire Sprinkler Association (NFSA) voiced their concerns in an article, NFSA Seeks Clarity About Fire Protection During Construction. The article ultimately emphasizes that construction professionals do not have clear standards on the implementation of temporary fire sprinkler systems and NFSA would like to see that resolved. Here is a section from the article:

“On the topic of fire sprinklers, NFPA 241 makes three points:

  • Sprinkler systems should be placed in service as soon as practicable.
  • Sprinkler systems should be installed following NFPA 13.
  • Temporary sprinkler systems are permitted to protect construction sites.

Items 1 and 3 can conflict with item 2. And the definition of “practicable” is open to interpretation by designers, AHJs, and contractors, creating concerns for sprinkler contractors about liability and reliability. To address this issue, the standard should ideally be clarified to provide more specific guidance.”

I find NFSA’s concerns to be accurate, when considering the variety of construction types and conditions, what is “practicable” to one person or  situation may not be for another. As a result, the industry is left confused. Another layer of confusion is the allowance of temporary systems.  Although they are “permitted”  they are subjected to being installed in accordance with NFPA 13. The confusion creeps up here again… by the nature of being a temporary system, it is not compliant with NFPA 13. These inconsistencies ultimately generate concerns for sprinkler contractors in regards to liability and reliability. For example: who is responsible for any damage from a non or underperforming sprinkler system that was not approved and/or accepted by an AHJ and what are the parameters by which a designer could agree to “sign off” on turning a system on? These are just a couple of valid concerns not addressed under current regulations. 

Practical Concerns

In 2017, on the heels of three large loss fires here in Massachusetts, the Construction Fire Safety Partnership, an informal group of contractors, designers, and AHJ’s was formed with the goal of improving fire safety on construction sites. One of the first tasks we took up was exploring the viability of early installation of fire protection systems. 

The CFSP concluded that there were a number of barriers to getting fire protection systems installed early. Here are a list of the major issues we uncovered:

  1. Early installation of water to site.
  2. Early installation of flow switches that will indicate the flow of water.
  3. A central station to monitor the flow switches and alert the appropriate responders. 
  4. A communication line for connection to the central station. 
  5. Maintaining of temperature in colder climates
  6. Could CPVC be installed in colder temperatures and is it approved for temporary and/or dry systems.
  7. Installations of ceilings and/or walls to capture heat and engage the sprinkler head(s).

Let’s look at these more closely. The ability to get water to the site, keep it from freezing and to monitor the fire protection system is not easy but is achievable. Material selection (CPVC or Steel) again is not easy, like many of these solutions they call for changing typical designs, accelerating schedules, and increasing cost but are absolutely doable.  However, the installation of ceilings and/or walls (fire protection devices require ceilings and or walls to be installed to capture the heat), may not be achievable. The big question is, if that’s not done completely are we dead in the water? Couldn’t we agree on a system that is less than 100% but would get water on a fire and assist in slowing the spread?  Going with the theory of not letting perfect be the enemy of good, is that not a net positive?

Here is a building in Dorchester, MA that was in the process of testing life safety systems prior to occupancy when a fire started. Ultimately it had to be demolished down to the first floor slab. Sprinkler system may have been turned on if regulations were clear.

Clarity Needed

In order to move temporary fire protection systems forward the industry would need the following direction: What does a temporary sprinkler system consist of at the most basic level? Would a system in compliance with NFPA 241 while not in full compliance with NFPA 13 be acceptable to AHJs, Contractors, Engineers and Insurance carriers? The distinction between an accepted/approved system verses a non-fully functioning one should be made.  This is important from a liability stand point, that way no one is stamping or signing off that the system is “final”, “approved” or “accepted” just that it is functioning or operating in a temporary and/or partial manner which is an improvement above nothing. This is an important first step that would take the liability concern off the table and allow us to talk about creating a solution that works.

It’s Already Been Done

Not all is lost, a few companies  locally have taken the time and sat down to confront these hurdles head on. They each seem to have figured out their own system that works for them. One local company in particular is Lee Kennedy Co., Inc. Lee Kennedy managed to install a temporary system in Boston. They were successful by switching from CPVC to a steel hard pipe system, installing upturned heads, and using an air pressurized dry system. Dry systems are typically used if water is susceptible to freezing in pipes. An air compressor provides air pressure higher than the water pressure to remain full of compressed air preventing any pipe freezes. LKC used a second layer of protection by shutting the water supply off during the day while construction was on going and turning it back on at the end of the day. If there was an incident on site during the day and a head was broken, it would be easily identified and handled.  At the end of the day the system would be re-pressurized and if there were no leaks the water valve was opened back up. Even with this creative solution problems such as; flow switches, water to building, and alarm systems still needed to be figured out. Lee Kennedy Co., Inc. managed this challenge successfully and spent a great deal of time with Boston Fire Department understanding what would be accepted to get their building protected. Although, how much easier would this have been if there were accepted practices and/or standards in place?

Where do we go from here?

The fact of the matter is risk and liability play a huge role in companies decisions to activate or install temporary fire protection systems. There are a number of factors mentioned in this article that go into that equation as well as one not mentioned, type of construction (combustible vs non-combustible) but at the end of the day if the option of temporary sprinklers is going to move forward, clearer guidance is needed.  By no means do I think that the guidance should be a mandate, just a practical option that gives all parties protection from liability and a direct path to make fire protection on job sites a reality.  At that point the market can make progress and create innovative solutions without being weighed down or worse turned away by the regulatory bodies and enforcement agencies meant to keep them safe.

Thanks to Brenda Brown for assistance in drafting the article. Let me know what you think in the comments.

Author: Joe Kelly

Website builder and podcaster for people who dig construction 🔨 🚧

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