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Ensuring protection through a five-year internal fire sprinkler system inspection

Automatic fire sprinkler systems are an absolute lifesaver. But like all mechanical equipment, these systems must be maintained in order to provide maximum protection to structures, the contents of these structures and — most importantly —their occupants.

A sprinkler system has many components that can become obstructed by particulates or corrosion, ultimately leading to a blockage or leak with the potential to cause system failure.  These hazards develop internally, so they cannot be seen by the naked eye. Without periodic inspection and maintenance, a system can fail when called upon, causing a building to burn to the ground despite management’s good intentions and investment. It is not enough to have a fire protection system; a properly maintained system is a must.

In order to give property managers a strong incentive to maintain their fire protection systems properly, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) took a significant step in 2002 by mandating an internal inspection of the piping and components of all systems no less frequently than every five years. These guidelines for inspection, which are commonly referred to as NFPA Pamphlet 25, call for measures that aid in the detection of unseen risks posed by foreign material that may compromise the system.  Such foreign material may include microbiologically influenced corrosion (MIC), rust, sludge and debris from domestic water supplies.

A thorough automatic fire sprinkler system internal  inspection  will detect obstructions and corrosion to help the system remain fully functional.  These inspections can be performed visually by qualified sprinkler professionals or through an independent consultant using scopes and laboratory testing.  These tests can include:

  • Microbiologically Influenced Corrosion – Identifies bacteria in most domestic water supplies that may attack the metals in a sprinkler system
  • Obstruction Detection – Identifies whether foreign matter is obstructing piping, sprinklers, valves or other components of the system
  • Corrosion Detection – Identifies ”thinning” of pipe walls due to corrosive internal activity, typically from the reaction between oxygen, water and steel

As part of an internal inspection, the pipes may also be flushed if foreign matter is detected. This foreign organic or inorganic material can then be captured and properly identified in order to determine a course of correction that will keep the system fully functional. While these inspections are hard, potentially “dirty” work that should only be performed by qualified professionals, they can typically be performed without disrupting the business day.

Special attention is warranted for systems that draw water from municipal sources of hard water or untreated water directly from bodies of natural water. Hard water can lead to excess mineralization that can block pipes. In one instance, one of our inspection teams discovered zebra mussels inside a client’s system that was drawing them in from a nearby body of fresh water!

As one of many bodies that subscribe to the NFPA’s guidelines, the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) requires that all buildings under its jurisdiction perform this five-year internal  fire protection system obstruction inspection.   All hospitals, nursing homes, and extended care facilities in the state are under IDPH jurisdiction, and thus subject to all applicable NFPA codes and requirements.  Our recent experience suggests that the IDPH has stepped up enforcement of the inspection requirement, with severe consequences for those that fail to comply.

Individual insurance companies may also have specific codes and requirements for fire protection system inspections that must be followed in order to stay in compliance with the terms of their policies.  All property owners or managers should be sure to check with their insurance carrier regarding specific requirements.

Complying with the NFPA five-year internal inspection guideline also brings a positive financial return. Buildings that are fully covered by sprinkler systems typically receive reduced insurance rates and may receive further discounts by undergoing internal inspections every five years.   Most importantly, regular system  inspections bring peace of mind that fire protection systems will do their jobs to save both people and property in the event of fire.

Tom Hartel is President of Valley Fire Protection Systems, LLC, located in Batavia, IL.