To be honest, the title of this post is a bit misleading. The truth is, we really wanted to publish a complete list detailing all the fire sprinkler pros and cons, but as you may already know, there really aren’t many negative aspects to automatic fire sprinkler systems. In fact, the list of fire sprinkler drawbacks and downsides is so short, you’ll say we’re being one-sided because we’re part of the fire safety industry! However, just hear us out, and you’ll have a clear image of actual fire sprinkler pros and cons by the end.
First, we’ll share some statistics sourced directly from the records of the NFPA (National Fire Protection Association) itself: NFPA records show that no fire occurring in an educational, residential, or institutional building with automatic fire sprinkler systems has caused more than two deaths. When you consider the fact that there were 3,400 civilian fire deaths in 2017, it’s easy to see the most obvious advantage to automatic fire sprinkler systems, which is the preservation of human life.
Then again, while most people are already aware that having automatic fire sprinklers increases building safety, there are some advantages you may not have considered that we want to point out here. Plus, to be as transparent as possible, we’ll also tackle the alleged disadvantages of automatic fire sprinkler systems. Let’s get started!
Advantages of an Automated Fire Sprinkler System
Obviously, we’ve already covered the most important reason to have an automated fire sprinkler system in your building, and that’s human safety. According to NFPA, residential fire sprinklers can reduce the risk of death from fire by 85 percent, a statistic that underlines the life-saving efficiency of fire sprinklers in other buildings and settings as well.
Although human safety is certainly the most weighty advantage on any pros and cons list for fire sprinklers, there’s another key advantage that certainly ranks second on the list in terms of importance: property damages.
Reduced Property Damage
There is a structure fire somewhere in the United States every 63 seconds, and in 2018, structure fires were responsible for an estimated $13.6 billion in property damage (NOTE: this figure for 2018 structure fire damages is actually much higher, at $25.6 billion, but we omitted the $12 billion in property damages caused by the Northern California wildfires, since that was hopefully a rare, catastrophic event). These figures tell us that fire does a LOT of damage, even when it doesn’t take lives.
Why is the amount of fire damages so high? There are many contributing factors, but the easy answer is that fire is among the most destructive natural forces known to man. It consumes everything in its path, and in most cases, just its presence causes a ripple effect of adjacent damages. It always spreads quickly, but can advance and escalate at astonishing speeds given the right (or wrong) environment and building materials. To top it all off, it can take hours to put out a structure fire, depending on what’s burning and the size of the fire and the structure.
In short, everyone’s priority is (rightfully) human safety, so while heroic firefighters work tirelessly to save lives and always do their best to contain a fire and put it out as quickly as possible, no amount of heroism can “rescue” things like equipment, machinery, appliances, chemicals, specialty tools, computers, servers, files, and whatever other valuable things may be inside a building.
Even ignoring the building’s contents for a moment, consider the sheer amount of damage done to the structure itself! Depending on the size and shape of the structure, it’s not unlikely for a single fire to cause a total structure loss. Even after insurance, your loss is still likely to be detrimental in terms of man-hours and things beyond monetary value (such as server data or works of art). No matter how you slice it, most structure fires are likely consuming thousands and thousands of dollars by the minute.
Automated fire sprinklers substantially mitigate property damages and property loss. In fact, property damage in structures with fire sprinklers is reduced by approximately 71% according to NFPA. That’s because fires in structures with automatic fire sprinkler systems were contained to the room of origin 97% of the time! Preventing the fire from spreading to other rooms of your facility or structure is undoubtedly key to keeping property damage to a minimum.
We only have one planet Earth, right? One of the surprising and less-considered benefits of automated fire sprinkler systems is that they provide enormous gains to our ongoing efforts of ‘going green’. You see, automated fire sprinklers are like a 24/7/365 firefighter that confronts fire with it’s only weakness immediately, no matter if it’s 3am, or Christmas morning, or even if there’s a big fire elsewhere currently consuming all your area’s local firefighting resources. That means the fire is typically extinguished within several minutes of its onset, before it’s had a chance to fully develop, or spread to seek out additional fuels to consume.
By extinguishing a fire in its infancy, the amount of greenhouse gas emissions are reduced significantly, sometimes as much as 99%. The release of carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, methane, and other gases are all byproducts of combustion that are harmful to the environment.
A more obvious environmental benefit to fire sprinklers is the reduced water consumption. Just a house fire typically requires the discharge of over 3,500 gallons of water from the fire department, but the average fire sprinkler system discharging water for 10 full minutes will use less than 300 gallons of water. Overall, the fire department’s fire hose uses about 90% more water on a fire than a fire sprinkler system would.
There are many other environmental benefits that have less substantial impacts, but still contribute to the overall eco-friendliness of fire sprinklers: They reduce the release of particulate matter that would otherwise directly impact the air quality, which not only aggravates respiratory conditions but can also contain hazardous and/or carcinogenic material resulting from the burning of certain plastics, chemicals, and materials. By reducing or eliminating this hazardous material that commonly results from a structure fire, the amount of polluted and/or toxic runoff going into nearby lakes, aquifers, and streams is also reduced.
Also, because preventing a structure fire from getting out of control is preventing the amount of structural damage, fire sprinklers are inadvertently keeping tons of damaged building materials out of landfills. Another indirect environmental benefit is in the fire sprinkler’s statistical reduction in the use of high-fuel-consumption fire response vehicles; fire engines use an average of five gallons of diesel fuel per hour on idle, aircraft such as fixed-wing planes used as aerial firefighters as well as helicopters used for rescue or fire suppression consume three to seven gallons of fuel per hour, and even the fire rescue trucks use over two gallons per hour.
By extinguishing a fire early, or at least keeping it contained until firefighters can respond, automated fire sprinklers are reducing or completely eliminating almost all of the environmental hazards that are unavoidable with a large structure fire.
Automated Fire Sprinkler System Misconceptions
Before we get to the “cons”, we thought it might be best to address all the issues that seem like disadvantages to having automated fire sprinklers, but are actually just misconceptions.
MYTH #1: Inadvertent Activation or Accidental Discharge
You may have heard a story at some point that a fire sprinkler activated when there was no fire, and the event was a huge inconvenience and caused thousands of dollars in water damages. We’re not saying this has never happened, but the odds of a fire sprinkler defect causing it to activate are about 1 in 16 million, according to their long history and extensive track record of reliability. Fire sprinklers can absolutely fall into disrepair, or become intentionally or accidentally damaged, and theoretically any of this could cause a sprinkler to behave defectively, but that rarely causes them to activate or discharge. It’s far more likely (but still uncommon) for fire sprinkler plumbing to become damaged and leak from the actual piping, but of course this is no more likely to happen than the rest of the plumbing in your building.
MYTH #2: Trading Fire Damage for Water Damage
If you’ve been paying attention, you already know that the effectiveness of fire sprinklers comes from the fact that they are on-site immediately, allowing them to extinguish or at least contain the vast majority of fires to a single room. Water damage is unlikely to spread because of the heat from the fire, but even if water damage did spread, it will have a much lesser impact than a spreading fire. Most materials that come into contact with water are fine if dried out quickly; that’s not something anyone ever said about fire! Besides, if you’re really worried about damages from water, consider the fact that the fire department will use thousands of gallons of it when they respond to a structure fire.
MYTH #3: One Fire Activates ALL Water Sprinklers in the Building
This one is just completely false. Most fires are controlled with only one or two fire sprinklers activated, which will be ones closest to the fire, while the rest of the fire sprinklers in the building remain dormant until they detect a fire. There are some fire sprinkler systems that allow the option for a building owner or security supervisor to CHOOSE additional settings, like to have the fire sprinkler system activate additional nearby sprinklers when fire is detected, but this is not typical or default behavior. These kinds of fire sprinkler systems can be extremely useful in specific settings, however. For example, in a facility that houses extremely flammable/combustable liquids, activating ALL fire sprinklers upon fire detection may be wise; liquids stored in plastic containers or 50-gallon drums won’t be harmed by water, and even if the liquids are exposed, ruining them with water dilution may be a preferred alternative to explosions that rain down chemical fire.
MYTH #4: A Single Flame or Puff of Smoke Will Activate a Water Sprinkler
Again, just a totally false fact here. The design of each individual fire sprinkler is specifically built and calibrated to respond only from the specific heat range that occurs when a fire is present. If a fire is tiny and contained, like a candle (yes, even those big 5-wick ones), it’s not producing enough heat for the sprinkler to detect and activate. If a fire is not really a fire at all but just a lot of smoke, your fire alarms that detect smoke may be vocal about it, but a fire sprinkler won’t release a single drop. Fire sprinklers (in their default setting and normal operation) don’t respond to smoke, vapors, steam, burnt popcorn, loud noises, or smoke alarms.
MYTH #5: Smoke Alarms are Enough
Smoke alarms are absolute necessities, and their part in any life safety system should never be downplayed. However, smoke alarms are there to alert occupants to evacuate the building, they don’t actually contribute anything to the end result of extinguishing the fire. In the event that anyone in the building doesn’t evacuate when the smoke alarm goes off (maybe they assume it’s a false alarm, or maybe they are deaf or asleep), fire sprinklers will help keep them safe anyway by reducing the risk of the fire spreading. Furthermore, smoke alarms can’t mitigate property damages, which are sure to be extensive in the event of a structure fire.
MYTH #6: Newer Buildings are Built to Stop Fire from Spreading
You could say that SOME newer buildings are built to SLOW the spread of fire, but in general, saying that fire spreads slower in newer buildings couldn’t be farther from the truth. Newer buildings are built with codes that relate to fire safety, like the requirement of smoke alarms and emergency exit points, but in terms of how quickly a fire will spread, newer buildings are actually LESS effective than old buildings.
Recent studies show that current-code floor assemblies exposed to fire are prone to “catastrophic collapse as early as six minutes from the onset of fire,” and that the use of lightweight roof trusses and engineered lumber have caused firefighters to reduce their structural integrity risk timelines. A similar study found that structures of today have many features that actually increase the risks from fire, including ‘open floor plans’ that collapse in a shorter time than traditional floor plans, and synthetic materials used in flooring and furnishings that provide a greater fuel load for fire.
Newer construction codes certainly allow for implements that can help reduce the speed at which fire spreads (such as tighter construction and better draft-stopping), but not many builders or architects have this as their primary goal when designing or constructing a building. Constructing every wall out of 8-inch concrete blocks would surely slow down a fire, but they have to consider thousands of other things, such as project budget, completion time, and optimal use of space. It is true that if a facility is built with specific uses in mind, and those specific uses happen to include fire hazards, additional steps may be taken during design and construction to mitigate these risks, but it’s the exception, not the rule.
MYTH #7: Fire Sprinklers Ruin the Aesthetics
You’ve seen fire sprinklers before; they look like a small metal spout sticking out of the ceiling, usually with a small, flat, flower-shaped disc on the end. But they don’t all look like that! You’ve probably been in the same room with many fire sprinklers that you didn’t even notice. There are a lot of different models to choose from, many of which are flush-mounted, can be mounted on walls or ceilings, and can even be recessed and concealed behind a flush, flat, or decorative cover. Your car has airbags, but you don’t have to look at them every day, right?
Automated Fire Sprinkler System Disadvantages
With all the myths and misconceptions out of the way, all that’s left are the actual fire sprinkler system disadvantages, as promised.
Automated Fire Sprinkler Cost
The cost of fire sprinklers is tough to address because the costs can vary so greatly depending on the a multitude of factors like structure type, size, risk profile, and even aesthetics. The difference in cost to implement fire sprinklers in an existing structure versus an under-construction or planned structure is also quite different. With an existing structure, you need a certified fire safety design specialist to determine what existing framework can be used for fire sprinklers, as well as what needs to be added. Additions can be extensive, or they can be as minor as making some adjustments to your building’s plumbing. Making the decision to put fire sprinklers into a building before construction begins, or in the beginning phases of construction, is the best method. This ensures that the fire sprinkler system design can be optimized for cost as well as for integration with other life safety systems.
In summary, yes, of course putting automated fire sprinklers into a building will have a cost associated with it; it involves additional plumbing plus the cost of equipment and installation, and may even require water storage tanks and/or backflow preventions, all depending on your building, its needs, and its complexities. However, the cost is easily outweighed by the peace of mind it provides, and if your facility has even a single fire, the system will likely pay for itself by extinguishing it or preventing it from spreading.
Fire Sprinklers Require Maintenance
There are many residential fire sprinkler systems currently being sold that claim to be “maintenance-free”, and as much as that claim would support our efforts to increase the number of buildings with fire sprinkler systems, the truth is that a maintenance-free fire sprinkler system is either a pipe dream (no pun intended), or an accident waiting to happen. Just like every other system within your building, some maintenance will absolutely be required. Fire sprinkler heads need to be cleaned periodically to keep them free from debris buildup, and sometimes fire sprinkler heads get damaged or become clogged or rusty and need to be replaced.
However, perhaps the most important part of fire sprinkler system maintenance is regular inspection and testing. All life safety systems should have regular periodic inspections and testing performed, particularly in a commercial setting. Like any system that is in regular contact with water, corrosion such as rust or oxidation is always a possibility to be watchful for. Some corrosion can create a buildup within the system that could cause the fire sprinklers not to work at all, or to spray such a small amount of water that it barely affects the fire. Alternatively, pipe corrosion could cause a leak to develop, which can create a headache but is preferred to having a structure fire with clogged fire sprinklers.
The point is that without proper and regular maintenance, inspection, and testing of fire sprinkler systems, they could become corroded, rendering them completely ineffective and costing a lot to repair. But with proper maintenance, testing, and regular inspections for corrosion and internal obstructions, you’ll know about issues and problems in more than enough time to have them effectively resolved by a professional without a huge bill, without the risk of a leaky pipe, and without the risk of ineffective fire sprinklers.