According to the NFSA:

Automatic fire sprinkler systems are widely considered the single most effective tool for protecting life and property from unfriendly fire.  There has never been a multiple loss of life from fire among building occupants protected by a properly designed, installed and maintained fire sprinkler system.  Having an automatic sprinkler system protecting your home or workplace has been compared to having firefighters at the ready 24 hours a day.  Automatic sprinklers respond individually to heat from a fire, distributing water under pressure at the source of a small fire before it can become large and deadly.

Potential Problems

If a sprinkler system accidentally discharges, it’s a major problem for a building. To make matters worse, it can be difficult to determine what caused the discharge to occur:

  1. Overheating – Automatic sprinklers respond to heat, and cannot differentiate between “good heat” and “bad heat”.  Where sprinklers are located very close to unit heaters, under skylights and in other areas exposed to high heat.
  2. Freezing – Although special types of sprinkler systems are available for use in areas subject to freezing, most sprinkler systems are wet pipe systems, meaning that the piping is normally filled with water.  If a system or even a small portion of a system is exposed to freezing temperatures, water in the piping can turn to ice, expanding in volume and producing thousands of pounds of pressure.  Such pressures can break fittings, but can also force sprinklers to operate, resulting in accidental discharge or leakage when the system subsequently thaws.
  3. Mechanical Damage – Mechanical impacts to sprinklers can result in damage and separation of parts.  Although it is obvious that a large force can immediately open a sprinkler, it is less obvious that a smaller impact can do the same thing over time.
  4. Corrosion – Corrosion can result in a weakening of parts, and a subsequent release of water.
  5. Deliberate Sabotage – Vandalism and insurance fraud have been found in the past to be motivations for tampering with sprinklers.

What About Sprinkler System Manufacturing Defects?

The likelihood of an automatic sprinkler opening in the absence of the above reasons was historically found to be extremely low – on the order of one per year per sixteen million sprinklers in use.  These statistics were based on the use of traditional sprinklers, however, not the more sensitive sprinklers of today that feature lighter operating mechanisms for enhanced fire performance.  Although very rare, the possibility of a manufacturing defect can be considered when all other potential reasons for inadvertent operation have been ruled out.  This could take the form of a problem in loading or tolerances on the parts.  The sprinkler manufacturer should be contacted, and arrangements can be made for professional analysis.

Sprinklers have historically been very reliable. However, in recent history there has been a trend toward the requirement and installation of more sensitive sprinklers known as Quick Response sprinklers.  Quick Response sprinklers are more fragile than their traditional counterparts and more prone to damage during shipping and installation.

Fire sprinkler manufacturers rigorously test sprinklers before they are sold. In most cases, the sprinklers are pressure tested at two or three times expected operating pressures. Fire sprinkler installers are advised to take special care to ensure that they were not damaged during shipping or installation. Unfortunately, damaged fire sprinklers do find their way into service.

In The Case Of A Discharge, Who Is Responsible?

Insurance carriers will typically investigate the event in order to find who might be responsible for the loss so that they can be reimbursed. One significant factor in determining if it is the installers fault is figuring out how close the discharge occurred relative to when the building was constructed.

Get an expert involved as early as possible and before evidence is lost.  A Fire Protection Engineer can help document important system features and determine the cause of the discharge. In the meantime:

  • Document and retain evidence – take high resolution pictures of the surrounding areas and make sure you interview any witnesses or the first person to notice the problem.
  • Review overall installation for other potential issues – It is not uncommon for a building to have a freeze failure one year and then another identical event the next.

The key to the documentation is figuring out who is ultimately responsible for the discharge. Responsibility can rest on the building owners because they had a wet sprinkler system installed in an area that was no longer being heated and the pipes froze as a result. The system installer might not have installed the system to code causing the system to malfunction. With the right documentation and a Fire Protection Engineer to help document and inspect the system, you will increase the chances of correctly identifying where responsibility rests.

By Jeff Harrington, CEO and Founder of Harrington Group, Inc.