How to prepare your wet or dry fire suppression systems for cold weather.
By Amanda Neisen
With colder weather arriving and a potentially bitter winter at our doorstep, one of the highest risks against your facilities comes with it. Freezing and bursting pipes is an overlooked problem that could result in extensive damage at an unexpected high cost. One of the most preventative ways to avoid high repair costs and irreparable damage is to winterize your fire sprinkler systems. This process is done to prepare your fire sprinkler systems to endure colder temperatures and maintain their operation for years to come.
Difference Between Wet and Dry Sprinkler Systems
There are many different types of fire suppression systems that are installed at facilities, anywhere from clean agent systems to CO2 systems. However, this article will cover the two most common types: a wet and dry system. A wet sprinkler system is filled with water, ready to activate at the first sign of a fire upon a sprinkler head discharging. They are located indoors where temperatures are consistently above freezing. A dry sprinkler system is filled using air (with the help of an air compressor) to hold water back from entering the pipes until a sprinkler head discharges, causing the water to flow through the pipes and onto the fire. Dry systems are typically located in spaces that are susceptible to freezing temperatures such as attics, canopies, stairwells and parking garages. They require a bit more attention.
Every Facility is Vulnerable
A popular hotel chain experienced multiple weather-related issues on their fire sprinkler systems in Alabama during the winter of 2013-2014. They experienced three separate instances where a dry pendant sprinkler head broke on their wet system due to extended periods of cold weather. These sprinkler heads are designed to break if there is excess pressure. Although the sprinkler heads did what they were designed to do under these harsh conditions, the hotel was stuck paying for numerous service calls and overtime rates to replace multiple broken fire sprinkler heads.
This same hotel chain experienced a ruptured sprinkler pipe in the attic at one of their facilities in Texas. Not only did this issue cause water damage to their sheetrock, it resulted in multiple service calls to repair the broken pipe. The underlying issue was likely the air vent located near where the wet and dry systems drain. The vent had been blowing cool air on the already cool pipes throughout those brutal winter months.
Because of the number of cold weather-related fire sprinkler issues, this particular hotel chain had to deal with the unfortunate cost of increased insurance premiums. They have since implemented scheduled winterization visits to ensure their facilities are prepared for cold weather. Taking measures to prepare your facilities for the winter could save you from the headache of dealing with emergency service calls and the frustration of costly repairs.
How to Prepare for Winter
Although your facility might be geographically located where freezing temperatures are not an immediate threat, your fire sprinkler system could still be at risk. It only takes a couple below-average cold days to damage your property. There are many ways to prepare both before and during a cold winter. The following steps can be taken to help avoid possible sprinkler breaks or leaks and ultimately save big bucks down the road.
• Your first step is to identify spaces that contain sprinkler piping. This will help you become familiar not only with your fire systems but also your property. Determine if the location of the piping is exposed to temperatures below 40˚ Fahrenheit (4˚C). Set out thermometers in areas that are not temperature regulated and periodically check them to ensure the temperatures stay above 40˚F (4˚C).
• Identify the location of your sprinkler shut-off equipment. Make note of the difference between the main water shut-off and the fire sprinkler shut-off as they are not tied together and one does not control the other.
• Properties that have dry systems are usually equipped with drum drips that require draining on a weekly basis. These drum drips, or low points, are designed to trap any excess water in the system, which is typically caused by condensation. The water can then be drained out without activating and discharging the system. There are two valves located on a drum drip assembly, at the top and bottom. The top will close off the live system and allow the bottom to be opened and excess water to drain out. This step should be repeated a few times to ensure all the water has been drained from the system. Because dry systems are completely reliant on an air compressor, verify it is operable and dependable. You may want to refer your fire protection service provider to confirm the compressor in place can support the size of your facility.
• It is recommended to survey and look over your property weekly. Be sure to double check any equipment that may look or sound unusual; this may be an indicator something is not operating properly and needs attention. During the survey, it is a good idea to check all insulation for potential air leaks and equipment for cracks. With freezing, cracks can be the beginning of a much bigger problem. Cold weather can affect not only your fire protection systems, but other building assemblies as well.
Turn to the Experts
Your fire protection service provider may always be contacted to perform the initial winterization of your property. They can assist and educate property personnel on the basics of your systems, as it is the responsibility of the property to maintain its equipment.
Treat your facility as an investment, take care of it, and it will take care of you!
— Amanda Neisen is a national account representative at APi National Service Group, a leader in fire and life safety inspections and service for customers with a regional or national portfolio of properties. The author may be reached at [email protected].