Fire Sprinkler Questions

Frequently Asked Questions About Fire Sprinklers

Will sprinklers leak?

Sprinklers and their piping are pressure-tested at two to three times higher than your plumbing system, even though they use the same pressure as your plumbing. Therefore, the chance of a leaking sprinkler is practically nil. Like your plumbing pipes, sprinkler pipes are not exposed to cold areas so they are protected from freezing. They do not leak because, unlike faucets and other fixtures that are operated often throughout their lives, fire sprinklers remain closed until needed and thus do not receive the wear and tear of daily use.

Won't all the sprinklers in the room go off at the same time?

As the graphic above explains, the heat from a fire will open the nearest sprinkler. Its water cools the hot fire gases, making it impossible to open other sprinklers. Thus, in nearly all cases there is not enough heat to open the next nearest sprinkler. In the rare case that the heat is too much for the nearest sprinkler, the next nearest sprinkler will open to overcome the fire. The operation of more than one sprinkler occurs in a small percentage of commercial buildings, but is very unlikely in homes. Thus, only the sprinklers necessary to stop the fire will operate, and fire records show that it usually takes just one.

Why, then, do people think that all of the sprinklers in the room go off at the same time? There are two reasons. First, Hollywood gag writers show all of them going off for comic effect. They have shown this happening from someone merely lighting a cigar or pulling a fire alarm switch. Those actions cannot even make one sprinkler open, let alone all of them.

The second reason is that a lot of people mistakenly think that smoke will open a sprinkler. They have seen smoke spread throughout a room, so they conclude that smoke affect all of the sprinklers in the room. But once people understand that:

  • Only heat can open a sprinkler (smoke can't melt metal or burst glass) and,
  • Only a threatening fire can generate enough heat to open a sprinkler, then they understand that all of the sprinklers won't open at the same time, even in a smoky room.

Aren't they unsightly?

Residential fire sprinklers are much smaller than ones that you see in stores and offices. All residential models come in colors to match popular ceiling and wall colors, and manufacturers will even custom-paint them for you. Many models are partially recessed into the ceiling, and only 1/4"-3/4" is below the ceiling. If you want them completely recessed, these models are also available. The fully recessed models are hidden by a cover plate that is painted to match the ceiling. The cover is held in place by a metallic link that melts in a fire and exposes the sprinkler.

It is common to find that visitors do not notice the sprinklers at all unless you point them out, even the ones that are not recessed into the ceiling.

Won't the water create more damage than the fire?

One of the myths about sprinklers is that they will cause water damage. While this may seem logical (after all, they spray water), fire records show that the reverse is actually true. Here is why. A residential fire sprinkler sprays about only 10-18 gallons of water per minute and operates early in a fire to stop the burning. A hose used by firefighters flows ten times that amount, 175-200 gallons a minute. If sprinklers are not present, fires typically burn for an additional 10-15 minutes until firefighters arrive and begin spraying it with their hoses. Two things happen to cause more damage than sprinkler. First, more of your possessions have burned up before the firefighters intervened, and then you have 10 times more water being sprayed on what is left at a very high pressure.

The combination of the sprinkler's quick response, the smaller water flow and lower pressure significantly reduce water and property damage. Think about it. What is more damaged, a sofa that can de dried off (sprinklered fire) or one that has turned to ashes (manual suppression)? How about an oil painting that was protected by a fine spray (sprinklered fire) or one where all that was left was part of a frame (manual suppression)? Without sprinklers, the heat and smoke from a fire travel very quickly, damaging the furniture and possessions throughout the house. With sprinklers, the sprinkler nearest the fire will stop it before it can develop the damaging heat and smoke.

You can install an alarm to alert you when a sprinkler opens and water starts flowing. The alarm will also alert neighbors, and you can have it monitored by an alarm company so they can call the fire department if no one is around.

Can I install them myself?

Only qualified contractors should install fire sprinklers. They will know how to install the system in compliance with national standards, which ensures that the spacing is correct and an adequate water supply is available. Also, fire sprinklers have different operating temperatures and flow patterns. You need someone knowledgeable who can select the correct sprinkler for each area of the home.

Information provided by the Residential Fire Safety Institute Web site.