By John Morse
The deep freeze that has hit the mid-west has caused a lot of damage. The snow and wind combined with the cold to make things pretty uncomfortable, but for a lot of businesses the real problems came when the temperature warmed up a little bit. Those water filled pipes of the sprinkler systems froze in the cold and when it warmed up a little the broken pipes let loose and filled many businesses with sprinkler water.
Firefighters responding for activated fire alarms were met with that damp oily smell of sprinkler system water in many buildings. Some businesses had water flowing in loading docks where the pipes weren’t insulated well enough from the extreme cold. Other businesses had issues with heating systems which allowed pipes to freeze and then break when the heat was restored. Some businesses escaped with wet carpet and a couple broken ceiling tiles, but others had major damage from water pouring onto computer terminals and file cabinets.
There are a lot of things businesses and fire inspectors can do to help prevent these occurrences. Some are as simple as looking for areas where pipes might be exposed to cold, like loading docks, entry foyers, and storage areas. Some entry foyers have electric heaters installed to prevent freezing pipes. Unfortunately for one school those heaters weren’t turned on and they almost lost a wood gym floor. Building maintenance workers need to develop a plan to make sure heaters in foyers and storage rooms are always ready to go for the cold season. The best option for these areas is to leave the heaters on year round and make sure they can’t be turned off.
There are several different types of temperature alarms that can be used to monitor vacant buildings or areas that aren’t used often. These alarms activate when temperatures reach 40 degrees. Some sound an audible alarm, and others are connected to alarm systems that initiate a phone call that announces the alarm.
Dry pipe sprinkler systems are used in some loading docks and parking garages. These systems are filled with air instead of water so freezing isn’t a problem. Once a sprinkler head is activated the air flows out of the system and water fills the pipes. These systems need to be maintained to ensure valves are seated well and there are no water leaks into the dry pipe area of the system.
Once these systems are activated firefighters will first shut off the water supply to the broken pipe. Some larger buildings have shut offs installed on each floor, or in each wing of the building. These valves should be exercised and lubricated to make sure they can be shut off when needed. Locations of these valves should be available for firefighters to quickly shut down the system.
Sprinklers systems serve a very valuable purpose in protecting lives and buildings. Make sure your systems can protect you by protecting them from the cold.