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Fire Sprinkler Systems

August 19, 2011

Fire sprinkler systems were developed in the late 1800’s to protect warehouses and factories.  The insurance industry drove development and installation of fire sprinkler systems.  Huge fire losses were being offset by the protection fire sprinkler systems offered.  In fact, savings from fire sprinkler systems could pay for themselves over a few years.

Up through 1940-1950, fire sprinklers were almost exclusively found in industrial occupancies.  In the 1940’s America experienced several fires in large buildings where people assembled and the life losses were staggering (492 dead in the Coconut Grove Nightclub fire).  Fire officials began examining the safety record of fire sprinkler systems.

Over the past twenty years, fire sprinklers have been used more and more to enhance safety in buildings where larger numbers of people may congregate or live (public buildings, retail stores, apartments).  Sprinkler systems work automatically and need no human intervention.  Sprinklers keep fires much smaller.  Automatic fire sprinkler systems provide earlier fire department notification.  Overall, fire sprinklers have been a very effective tool in creating a much more fire-resistant environment for the consumer.

There are some persistent myths about fire sprinklers.  The most common misconception is that a fire in the building will cause all of the building fire sprinklers to flow water.  Hollywood has created that illusion.  You can design a fire sprinkler system to operate that way but it is expensive and only used rarely in limited industrial applications.  The vast majority of sprinklers (and all sprinklers designed to protect lives) work much differently.  In most buildings, each sprinkler head is activated by heat.  Only the sprinkler that gets hot (usually greater than 165°F) flows water.  Water only flows where the fire is.  If the fire is small, one sprinkler head may control the fire.  If the fire is large, multiple sprinklers may activate.

Another myth is that fire sprinklers have a high failure rate and cause water damage when there is no fire.  Buckingham Township, Pennsylvania publishes a report indicating that only 1 sprinkler in 16,000,000 fails in the U.S.  These failures typically come from poor design/installation, freezing/overheating, mechanical damage and deliberate sabotage.  One in sixteen million is a pretty good safety record.  Furthermore, a fire department will cause way more water damage fighting a fire than a fire sprinkler system will cause.  Fire sprinklers activate while the fire is small and requires less water.  Estimates are that a sprinkler system uses one tenth of the water your fire department will use.

Another concern is the cost of sprinkler systems.  Insurance companies like customers that use sprinkler systems, and in commercial occupancies insurance savings often pay for the cost of a sprinkler system in 3-5 years.  In homes, the cost of installing a sprinkler system can be as low as one to two percent of the total home construction cost (that’s what some people pay for a carpet upgrade).

Everyone in the fire service has seen how successful commercial fire sprinkler systems have been.  That success in the commercial world is coming into the home.  Standards to design fire sprinkler systems for homes have been developed and tested.  A home fire sprinkler system would not only protect your home, but would buy your family extra time to get out.  In many cases, a home fire sprinkler system would extinguish the fire.  Communities are realizing the benefits of home fire sprinkler systems and some have required that all newly constructed homes have a fire sprinkler system installed.

If you’ve got questions about fire sprinkler systems, give me a call at 509-466-4602, or e-mail me at, or leave a comment on this blog.


Buckingham Township Fire Marshal’s Office.  (2009).  Common myths about fire sprinkler protection.  Retrieved August 19, 2011 from Sprinkler-Myths.pdf.

Fleming, R. P.  (2000).  Accidental discharge of fire sprinklers.  National Fire Sprinkler Association.  Retrieved August 19, 2011 from

National Fire Sprinkler Association.  (n.d.).  Fire sprinkler facts.  Retrieved August 19, 2011 from

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