Sprinkler systems: How watertight are they?


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This year, the UK government reduced the height threshold for new residential buildings requiring sprinkler systems, in a bid to make housing safer. But how effective are sprinklers really? Ian King, COO, Zeroignition explains in this exclusive article.

With the anniversary of Grenfell back in media headlines, the construction industry is once again thinking about fire safety. Sadly, since the tragedy, not enough has been done to safeguard high-rise buildings, yet the introduction of the Building Safety Act, offers hope of change. It’s an important time for the sector – making the right changes now could create safer structures for generations. Get it wrong, and we could have another disaster on our hands. 

Yet as it stands fire safety in construction is still falling short of the mark. Protocols around safety checks are lacking and knowledge about products and systems is far from satisfactory.

An obvious example are sprinkler systems – well known for their effectiveness in suppressing fire when deployed correctly, yet evidence suggests that inspection processes lack a robust enough framework to ensure their reliability.

According to the FPA, by law, in the UK only 20 sprinkler heads out of every 5,000 are required to be examined yet an estimated 40 million sprinklers are fitted worldwide each year. By comparison, in the U.S., all sprinkler heads have to be checked annually with additional monthly inspections.

In short, we have no idea exactly how many will work in the event of an emergency, presenting an unacceptable threat to life.

Seeing the bigger picture

This isn’t to say that sprinkler systems aren’t an effective method of fire protection – we know that when deployed correctly, they’re one of the best forms of defence. In fact, Fire Safety Advice Centre statistics show that not a single person has died in the UK where a working sprinkler system has been present in a building. What’s more, research by The National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) shows that sprinklers are effective almost 100% of the time when helping to extinguish or control fires as well as prevent further damage. So long as they work.

However, we’d be wise to avoid using them as a one-size-fits-all protection strategy. Instead, we should view and include them a part of a diverse mix of passive and active fire protection options – think fire-resistant walls and floors (passive) and fire blankets and extinguishers (active). Especially given the UK’s track record for safety checks and evaluation. The NFCC for example, reported over 1,000 ‘failures to operate’ in a corporate context from 2011 to 2016 and a recent U.S. study by the NFPA reported that 10% of sprinkler failures result from a lack of maintenance.

Understanding the bottom line

The hard truth is that we know construction industry thinking is strongly driven by profit margins, and sprinkler systems initially come with a hefty price tag. Taking into account the cost of setup, supplying and maintaining high water pressures and energy for a functional system, prices can quickly escalate. That’s not accounting for the costs to maintain and check systems in-person. Of course, money shouldn’t be a factor when risk to life is involved but there’s no denying that cost implications can sway the level of safety within a build.

Relying on sprinkler systems can also side line other fire safety options, allowing housebuilders to treat fire safety as a ‘tick this box exercise’ rather than treat it with the holistic approach it needs. For example, we know that good passive protection reduces or removes the need for active fire suppression – with broader considerations, we can ensure multiple safeguards.

We’ve also seen uncertainty around fire safety terminology, which needs to improve if we’re to make future structures safe and highlights the need for legislation that benchmarks industry best practice.

For example, in one of our research studies, we found that just over half of all architects couldn’t give an accurate definition of passive fire protection – ‘built-in’ fire protection. What’s more, 58% of architects were unable to explain what ‘reaction to fire’ is – a measure of flammability. Almost three-quarters (71%) were unable to define fire resistance – the ability of products and technologies to resist and prevent the spread of fire.

Encouraging innovation

Relying on a one-system approach to fire safety also stifles innovation. Without room to introduce new strategies, the industry could be missing out on more effective, less expensive options. It isn’t about abandoning sprinkler systems entirely – we know that they work and, when properly maintained, have been proven to save lives. However, in order to move forward, we need to see them considered as part of a more well-rounded approach to fire safety – one that brings both passive and active solutions into the mix.

By doing so, occupants will receive improved levels of safety in the properties they purchase. Beyond this, for contractors and developers, it shows that they are doing all they can to invest properly in fire safety – which is exactly where the industry needs to be.

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