Changes in your operation could leave you exposed.

We live in a world where change is always happening. This is certainly true for many business owners and their operations and facilities.

Companies construct, purchase or lease buildings; renovate existing spaces within buildings; add new production lines; change warehouse storage configurations and change the types of commodities being stored – just to name a few. When making these changes, building owners or users often neglect to consider the impact the existing fire sprinkler system and its ability to control or extinguish a fire.

According to a study conducted by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA)*, some of the leading causes for ineffective sprinkler system performance include:

  • Improper design
  • Changes in the hazard
  • Occupancy changes
  • Changes to the commodities being stored

NFPA 25 – Standard for the Inspection, Testing, and Maintenance of Water-Based Fire Protection Systems includes provisions requiring evaluation of a building’s fire protection systems by property owners or representatives when there are changes in occupancy, use or process, or materials used or stored in a building. Where the installed system is not adequate to protect the building due to the changes — appropriate corrections should be made.

This is important because proper design and selection of a fire sprinkler system involves consideration of many different factors, such as building design and layout, operations being conducted, occupancy uses and the types of commodities and packaging that are stored and handled. Changes to any number of factors surrounding a building and its use can result in a sprinkler system that may be inadequate and unable to control a fire.

There have been a number of fire losses in the United States over the years in which a sprinkler system’s inadequate design for the commodity being stored was determined to be a contributing factor in the inability of the system to control a fire. Even though Nationwide does not currently keep statistics, many of the fire sprinkler systems we assess – particularly those that protect storage occupancies – are deemed to be inadequate for the hazard classification of the stored commodities and packaging, or the storage configuration exceeds the design capability of the installed system.

Why does this happen? The reasons can vary, but often it’s the result of fire sprinkler systems with original designs that may have been suitable for the types of commodities and storage configurations intended at the time, but not for the current arrangement due to the changed needs of the business. As a consequence, buildings with existing systems that are determined to be inadequate may receive a less favorable insurance rate. An inadequate system also puts your business at risk of a more severe, costly, and disruptive loss in the event of a fire.

Specific examples of changes in operations or storage that would warrant an evaluation of the adequacy of an existing fire sprinkler system include:

  • Packaging materials or containers used for finished products changes from cardboard or corrugated cardboard cartons to plastic or wax-coated paper.
  • A warehouse used for dried food commodities is now also used to store associated foodservice items, such as tissues or paper towels, plastic eating utensils, disposable plastic or wax-coated cups and disposable Styrofoam plates.
  • Aerosol products are planned to be stored in a warehouse that previously had none.
  • A food manufacturing space used for baking undergoes the installation of new commercial oil cooking equipment to handle a new product line.
  • Installation of storage racks in a warehouse originally used to store materials in pallet loads on the floor.
  • Addition of multi-row storage racks in a warehouse that previously used only single or double-row racks.
  • The addition of solid shelving within existing storage racks which obstruct ceiling sprinkler water discharge from reaching storage tiers.
  • A proposed increase in storage height for existing commodities.
  • A building previously used for light equipment manufacturing is purchased or leased to be used for plastics machining and parts fabrication.
  • Plastic pallets are purchased to supplement the use of wooden pallets in a warehouse.
  • Pallet loads of raw materials from a supplier now come fully encapsulated by plastic covering all 5 sides (including the top).
  • Operations involving combustible or flammable liquids or storage is planned in a space, or a currently-used combustible or flammable liquid will now be stored in a different type of container (e.g., plastic vs. metal).

Seek assistance from your fire protection engineer or contractor

Fire sprinkler systems are installed in buildings to provide a measure of life safety and property protection. Building owners install and maintain these systems with the expectation they will work to control or extinguish fires when needed. To help ensure this is the case, remember to seek the assistance of your fire protection engineer or contractor, or contact Nationwide’s Property Engineering Group anytime changes are made in your operation that may impact the design of existing fire sprinkler systems.

[*] Hall, J. “U.S. Experience with Sprinklers,” National Fire Protection Association, Fire Analysis and Research Division, Quincy, MA, 2013.
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