It's a reliable, long-lived, and proven technology. It's a fire and life safety system that makes common sense yet is not common in older buildings. "It," of course, is the fire sprinkler system. Even facilities built as recently as the 1960s probably were not required to install sprinkler systems during construction.
Which leaves large swaths of commercial real estate to weigh the potential benefits to life and property of retrofitting a fire sprinkler system against the immediate challenges such a project poses: physical barriers, disruptions to occupants and the upfront cash needed.
These challenges aren't the only reasons that facility managers push such deliberations to the bottom of the to-do list. "I don't think people understand the power of fire, how quickly it moves and its power of destruction," says Chris Jelenewicz, engineering program manager for the Society of Fire Protection Engineers. "When you're thinking about fire, think about how it's something that could ruin your whole business. Fire can change things in a moment's notice."
And if the unlikely happens and a facility is not properly protected, the facilities department will be the one to have to answer.
Until the 1980s, fire sprinkler systems were viewed primarily as a means of property protection, says Tom Gardner, principal with The Protection Engineering Group. They were used in "high-cost" spaces such as supermarkets and furniture stores, he says, but with the advent of more sensitive sprinklers that could activate more quickly, they became an aspect of life safety.
Advances in fire sprinkler systems have eased some of the challenges of retrofit, says Ken Isman, vice president of engineering, National Fire Sprinkler Association. The availability of more flexible piping systems helps bring the pipes into the building more easily, whereas 30 years ago the only option was rigid steel pipes. And extended coverage sprinklers provide an efficient way to cover a larger space.
Still, says Garner, "there aren't very many volunteers for retrofit." The up front cost of installing a system means it has to vie for attention against all other capital improvement projects.
As a ballpark estimate, Isman says costs for a sprinkler system retrofit can run about $3 per square foot, or 50 percent above installation in new construction. But the actual cost depends on a lot of variables, says Gardner. He's seen it as low as $1 per square foot in a large warehouse that's out of operation to as high as $12 per square foot in an older building with a hard ceiling requiring asbestos abatement. Costs will tend to be higher in a smaller building or buildings that are very partitioned where there is a constant need to go through walls to install the system, Gardner says.
When considering a fire sprinkler retrofit, it's good to start off versed in some of the basics. By far the most common sprinkler system is the wet-pipe system. This system is constantly charged and provides water immediately upon activation.
Three types of sprinkler systems are more specialized and therefore less commonly used:
— Naomi Millán
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