How Sprinkler Systems in Commercial Buildings Work

Strict fire codes outline how a sprinkler system should be installed into a commercial building in order to decrease the expansion of fire and keep it from spreading should one occur. Automatic sprinkler systems are the first line of defense once a fire breaks out. The rapid rise of the manufacturing and technology industries have made automatic sprinkler systems a necessity to protect valuable human life and property. Sprinkler systems have a simple yet ingenious design, and the relative ease of installation makes these systems popular in residential homes as well as industrial buildings.

Basically, an automatic sprinkler system contains three main components: the sprinkler heads themselves, the piping through which water runs, and the storage tank where the bulk of the water for the system is stored. Sprinkler systems are pressurized, with water being in the pipes, ready to disperse at all times. The sprinkler heads are the valves, and each one is fitted with either a glass bulb containing heat-sensitive liquids or gasses or a fusible link that is sealed with a material that melts once the air reaches a certain temperature that can only be reached because of a fire. Since each sprinkler head is protected by an individual, heat-sensitive bulb, only those near the fire will be discharged, which negates unnecessary water damage to areas out of the fire area.

Once the material over the sprinkler head melts, water is automatically released. It can take between only 1 and 4 minutes for a sprinkler system to activate once the fire is initiated. The water will either put the fire out or help contain it until firemen arrive on the scene. Once activated, a sprinkler head can deliver water at a rate significantly lower than that of a fire department hose stream. A sprinkler head used for industrial manufacturing, for example, will discharge about 20-40 gallons/minute (GPM) compared to the 250 gallons/minute delivered by a standard fire hose.

In areas where sprinkler systems may be exposed to freezing temperatures, dry pipe systems can be installed. In these systems, water is not stored in the sprinkler systems pipes. The piping is filled with air below the water supply pressure and the pipes are filled with air instead. A check valve is used to keep this pressurized system in place. Dry pipe systems are used primarily in parking garages and other non heated areas. Since water is delayed from leaving the valves until the air has been purged from the pipes, these systems are less effective in the initial phases of fire control.

While automatic sprinkler systems are simple in theory, their installation can be more complex, especially in buildings where high hazard and flammable material is stored. Specific regulations regarding how many sprinkler heads are needed can be found in the regulations issued by the National Fire Protection Association and the International Building Code. Since changes and updates are regularly made, it is important to keep informed as to changes in regulations in order to avoid fines and damage due to preventable fires.


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