Back to Basics

Back to Basics: What Happens When a Fire Sprinkler System Fails

Back to Basics is a weekly feature that highlights important but possibly overlooked information that any EHS professional should know. This week, we examine what happens when a fire sprinkler system fails.

Fire sprinkler systems are installed in commercial and industrial (C&I) facilities to protect occupants, property structures, and contents. These systems contain fires and help save lives.

fire sprinkler system fails

Statistics from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) indicate that the civilian death rate from fires is 87% lower in buildings with sprinklers, compared to properties without fire sprinkler systems. But not all fire sprinkler systems are alike.

There are four main types of sprinkler systems:

  • Wet pipe
  • Dry pipe
  • Preaction
  • Deluge

Some types of fire sprinkler systems can withstand freezing temperatures. Other system designs focus on flooding a space with extinguishing agent. 

Regarding wet-pipe systems, the pipes supplying fire sprinklers have water in them at all times. When the fire sprinkler activates, the water discharges immediately. Sprinkler heads in this type of system do not all discharge simultaneously.

Other systems—particularly, the dry-pipe fire sprinkler systems—perform better in facilities subjected to subzero weather. The NFPA recommends the use of dry-pipe systems only in facilities that cannot maintain a minimum temperature of 40°F.

Notably, fire sprinkler systems can fail at any time. The main causes of failure are corrosion, freezing, improper installation, and inadequate parts and materials. Shut-offs and plumbing can be outside or non-insulated, making them more prone to freezing. These failures cause major damage to C&I properties.

What to Do if You Experience a System Failure

Although failure of a fire sprinkler can mean that the system does not activate, allowing flames to spread in a facility and cause fire damage, this article will focus mainly on failures, including leaks, pipe bursts, or similar malfunctions, that lead to water damage.

These types of failures can also lead to mold growth, destruction of your valuables, damage to your property structure, and even electrical malfunctions. Prompt cleanup of affected property can help minimize the inconvenience and prevent microbial growth or further secondary damage. If you experience a system failure, then immediately arrange for the cleanup of your property, with a certified, trained, and insured restoration company. 

A fire sprinkler system failure may be considered Category 3 biohazard cleaning if Legionella bacteria are present or the fresh water supply is stagnant for long periods of time. If this is the case, the biohazard requires specialized cleanup, disposal, proper treatment of the affected areas. Otherwise, a property owner or manager can accidentally cause more secondary damage to the property and also increase health hazards.

Causes of System Failure

Human Error: This is the most common cause, responsible for 93% of fire sprinkler failures. Only 7% are caused by damage to system components. And even then, people still often play a factor, with damage occurring during shipping, installation, or accidental impacts in gymnasiums, warehouses, and other risky environments. 

Aging Fire Sprinkler Systems: Fire sprinkler systems can deteriorate over time due to contraction and expansion, humidity, brackets attached, fasteners, welded joints, bends, turns, elevation points, and the type of metal used.

Corrosion: Problems also arise in systems that are exposed to high levels of humidity or acidic environments, such as air pollution, smoke, and smog. Also, certain production dusts and gases can cause surface oxidation.

Microbial Growth Blockages and Microbiologically Influenced Corrosion (M.I.C) of Pipe: Stagnant water and water inside the pipes can create a biofilm. Beneath this biofilm, corrosion initiates and progresses, resulting in localized corrosion that can lead to pinholes and leaks in the pipe system.

Freezing Temperatures: There are two main causes of freezing pipes: 1) Property areas and the sprinkler systems are exposed and not heated, and 2) the pipes and systems are not insulated. Dry sprinkler systems can also have failures due to freezing in cold conditions. A dry pipe sprinkler system is typically installed in areas of a building that are subject to freezing. As its name implies, the pipes are normally dry and charged with compressed air. The compressed air holds the dry valve closed and prevents water from entering the system. When a sprinkler activates, the compressed air leaks out, the valve opens, and the system piping is filled with water. If the dry system is properly installed, the water will drain, but that doesn’t always happen. According to paragraph 4.1.1.1 of NFPA 25, Standard for the Inspection, Testing, and Maintenance of Water-Based Fire Protection Systems: “The building owner shall ensure that all areas of the building containing water-filled piping shall be maintained at a minimum temperature of 40°F (4.4°C) and not exposed to freezing conditions.”

Improper Installation: If wet and dry fire sprinkler systems/pipes are not sloped back toward the source or an auxiliary drain, the water will pool within the piping. When winter comes around, the non-insulated piping freezes and will fail and burst. All C&I building owners are responsible for the maintenance and repair of their fire sprinkler systems, including any part that extends into unheated areas, such as attics, exterior or separate sprinkler rooms, chaises, soffits, and open plenum spaces.

How to File an Insurance Claim

For insurance purposes, take before and after photos of the affected areas and itemize any property losses. Save all receipts related to repair, cleaning, or damages, and contact your insurance agent or company representative. Fire sprinkler systems coverage is available from most insurers.

For properties that have been severely damaged and are uninhabitable, commercial insurance policies may provide loss-of-use coverage, which provides reimbursement for lodging, food, and other living expenses you may incur. Loss-of-use coverage also reimburses you for the lost rental income, if you rent out part of the commercial property.

How to Prevent Fire Sprinkler System Failures

It’s imperative to schedule a fire sprinkler inspection on a quarterly, semi-annual, or annual basis to confirm your system is up to code and working properly. These inspections must be conducted by a fire safety professional who is certified and knowledgeable on the subject matter. In addition, always consult with a professional, such as a life safety engineer, contractor, and your local authority having jurisdiction (e.g., a fire marshal or other government official) before making any changes to your fire protection or life safety system.

Visual Inspection: A certified trained, licensed, and insured fire safety profession can perform the visual inspection with a checklist and documentation. This inspection can determine the condition of the exterior of the fire sprinkler system and create a plan of action, cleaning, repair, or replacement, if necessary.

Hydrostatic Testing: The pressure of the fire sprinkler systems are pressure tested to the Fire Sprinkler Systems NFPA 13 Standard by a fire safety professional.

Clean and Clear Atmosphere and Property: Make sure the areas surrounding the system, as well as the sprinkler heads, are clean and clear of obstructions and dust.

Heat and Humidity Level Monitoring: Laser sensors with digital hygrometers, which measure the temperature and humidity levels, can be installed in the property.

These best practices will help a property owner or manager understand, prevent, and, if necessary, safely clean up fire sprinkler system failures.

Jon A. Barrett is the marketing manager of SERVPRO of Blackwood and Gloucester Township, N.J., which is a veteran-owned small business, an independent franchise, and a registered government contractor. Barrett has several certifications and over 30 years of remediation and restoration cleaning experience in the government, industrial, manufacturing, commercial, residential, and insurance industry sectors.