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Fire Sprinklers in Townhouse and CondominiumsCODE REQUIREMENTS for fire sprinklers in multifamily buildings have been in place for decades, but recent building code revisions are moving toward requiring fire sprinklers for all new residential construction, even some detached single-family homes. If you live in, govern or manage a condominium or a community of homes or town homes constructed since 2009, you probably already have automatic fire sprinkler systems.

Because national and local codes are moving toward requiring sprinkler systems, community association boards and managers need to understand the basics of how these systems work and what is necessary to provide for their proper maintenance.

A typical residential-style fire sprinkler system consists of pressurized pipework placed inside the walls, ceilings and attics. Sprinkler heads are exposed to the interior space throughout a building to provide coverage to the floor. The individual sprinkler heads are activated when the surrounding temperature is raised to a high enough point—usually around 160 degrees Fahrenheit—that a solder link melts or glass bulb shatters and the sprinkler begins spraying water over the surrounding area. As the sprinkler system is activated, it triggers an alarm; modern systems alert the fire department too. Sprinkler systems shouldn’t be confused with smoke detectors and alarms; sprinkler heads are activated by heat, not smoke. Smoke detectors and alarms are different systems with different maintenance requirements.

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) publishes a guide, NFPA 25: Standard for the Inspection, Testing, and Maintenance of Water-Based Fire Protection Systems, that can help community associations oversee and direct maintenance and inspections of these complex systems. Homeowners and community maintenance staff typically aren’t directly responsible for inspecting and maintaining sprinklers, but understanding the basics will help you work with your fire protection system service provider, better manage community needs and troubleshoot any problems.

The NFPA guide recommends an annual visual inspection of all sprinkler heads to ensure they are free from “corrosion, foreign materials, paint and physical damage.” Anyone—maintenance staff, homeowners and tenants—can perform this visual inspection. If the sprinkler heads are corroded or damaged, they need to be replaced. If your community doesn’t have a supply of spare sprinkler heads or a fund available to replace such damaged heads, it may be a good idea to consider creating a reserve fund that anticipates these costs.

The guide also recommends routine testing and maintenance on four parts of the overall system: the sprinkler heads, pressure gauges, alarm devices and the solution inside the pipes.

Test a representative sample of the sprinkler heads across the entire system at least once every 10 years. Part of this testing process involves removing the sample sprinkler heads and sending them to a recognized testing laboratory for analysis. The NFPA guide recommends that 1 percent of the total heads in the system be tested or, if it’s a smaller system, at least four sprinkler heads. Testing the heads is intended to ensure that they activate properly and supply the appropriate amount of flow.

The gauges that measure the pressure in the system should be tested for accuracy at least once every five years. If the pressure gauge is no longer accurate, your sprinkler system may not provide enough pressure to effectively suppress or extinguish a fire.

Test your alarm devices on a quarterly basis. This test is standard and easy to perform.

The solution inside the pipes should be tested annually for contamination and proper freezing point. Most people assume the solution in the sprinkler pipes is regular water. In reality, most waterbased systems incorporate an antifreeze solution that helps keep the pipes from freezing. And if the sprinkler solution is contaminated and left untreated, the contamination can quickly progress into expensive problems, such as corroded and leaking pipes.

Incorporate this testing routine in your community maintenance plan to keep your fire sprinkler system functioning properly. Many companies offer these different types of testing.

by: Michael Fiebig – CAI Common Ground