WITH EVERY REVISION cycle, NFPA 13, Installation of Sprinkler Systems, continues to develop as the international source for the design and installation of fire sprinkler systems. While the standard has evolved from a 25-page, index-card-sized document in 1896 to the 430-page-plus tome that sits on our shelves today, the document itself makes an admission that it does not, and will not ever, contain all of the answers to every question and every scenario encountered by its users. To that end, Sections 1.5 and 1.7 of NFPA 13 address equivalencies to the standard as a means of addressing new technology, alternative means and methods, and matters otherwise not provided for.
Sprinkler technology, construction methods, storage methods, material properties, and protection of hazards are constantly evolving, and it can be difficult for the various NFPA technical committees that review, analyze, and revise standards to keep up. The inclusion of an equivalency statement, though, which has existed in NFPA 13 since the 1970s, allows the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ), owner, developer, general contractor, and sprinkler system designer to address these concepts without having to wait for the next revision cycle.
While these sections exist as a mechanism to allow for the use of products and design approaches that have not been reviewed and accepted by the technical committees, they do not constitute an open door to using whatever materials and methods the installer wants to use. They are also not intended to be a means for getting an incorrectly installed system or component approved after the fact.
The equivalency section requires the submittal of technical justification for the modification to the standard. This substantiation should illustrate to the AHJ why the proposed product or approach provides an equivalent level of life safety and property protection as the prescriptive language in the standard. The justification should include the section or sections of the standard that the submitter is trying to obtain an equivalency for, along with a substantiation for the variance. This technical substantiation can include information such as full-scale test data, fire modeling validated by full-scale testing, listings or approvals from recognized laboratories, data or support from manufacturers, signed and stamped letters from registered engineer, and other methods.
Ultimately, the acceptance of the equivalency lies in the hands of the AHJ, who may review an equivalency submittal and request additional information or more testing, modeling, or endorsements. In some instances, specifically where fire modeling is used, AHJs will not be comfortable with the technical subject matter included in the submittal. In these instances, it is common for the AHJ to request that the equivalency be reviewed by an independent third party, often a registered fire protection engineer.
In all cases, it is advisable to approach AHJs early in the design process to advise them on any potential equivalencies that will be submitted. This gives AHJs the opportunity to educate themselves on the proposed concepts and products. Submitting equivalencies at the eleventh hour typically does not benefit anyone involved, from the owner/developer to the general contractor to the installing contractor. Failure to obtain an equivalency after the system has been installed can result in costly change orders and can fracture relationships within the design team. Being up-front and proactive is always the best course of action when dealing with Sections 1.5 and 1.7.