Why sprinkler systems are earth friendly.
NFPA Journal®, January/February 2009
A new study released by the Switzerland-based World Wildlife Fund concludes that two planet Earths will be needed by 2030 in order to maintain our current lifestyle. Since obtaining a second planet is not likely, the need to get by with the one we have will add urgency to the sustainability movement.
Fire sprinklers can play an important part in that movement. The recognition that fire sprinklers are green may be late in coming, but automatic suppression of building fires is a huge benefit to the environment.
To begin with, prompt suppression of unwanted fires reduces the release of fire gases and conserves natural resources. Automatic sprinkler systems, by responding quickly to a developing fire, use about one-tenth the amount of water needed for conventional firefighting. Not having to rebuild following a fire reduces carbon footprints through the whole cycle of construction, from materials refining to transportation costs to direct energy costs of building.
In the United States, ongoing building operations account for 39 percent of energy usage and 71 percent of electrical energy consumption. The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program of the U.S. Green Building Council provides a mechanism for scoring buildings on energy efficiency using a point system. Now coming out in 2009 Version 3, it is hoped that the LEED program can begin to recognize the contribution of automatic sprinkler systems to water usage reduction and other environmental benefits. While automatic sprinkler and other mechanical systems are exempt from specific requirements for recycled content, many component manufacturers have made this information available. Some manufacturers’ products, including sprinklers, valves, and fittings, exceed 90 percent recycled content by weight. It is also worth noting that while NFPA 13, Installation of Sprinkler Systems, requires sprinklers used in a fire sprinkler system installation to be new, there is no such requirement for other system components.
While automatic fire suppression systems can be beneficial environmentally, they can also be environmentally taxing, and reducing that tax should be a priority. Water is widely acknowledged as the most environmentally friendly extinguishing agent, but it is also a precious natural resource. We need to consider how to use it most efficiently in the routine testing and maintenance of sprinkler and other water-based suppression systems.
Standards Australia just published HB 533–Fire Protection Systems Testing–Water Conservation Handbook, a companion guide to its sprinkler system maintenance standard AS 1851. The handbook was developed through a cooperative effort of Fire Protection Association Australia, the Building Commission (Victoria), the Water Services Association Australia, and FM Global. It shows the amount of water typically used for different tests and procedures for sprinkler systems, pumps, hydrants, and hose reels, and recommends ways to reduce these amounts of water. The recommendations include collecting and reusing water, modifying the frequency of tests, and capturing water for recycling, all without reducing the reliability and effectiveness of systems.
As the NFPA Committee on Inspection, Testing, and Maintenance of Water-Based Fire Protection Systems enters a new amendment cycle for its standard NFPA 25, Inspection, Testing, and Maintenance of Water-Based Fire Protection Systems, it too will consider ways to improve water-use efficiency. But the bottom line is that fire sprinklers are already extremely green. Fires waste natural resources, and since automatic fire sprinkler systems are an efficient way to address fires, they are earth friendly.
Russ Fleming, P.E., is the executive vice-president of the National Fire Sprinkler Association and a member of the NFPA Technical Correlating Committee on Automatic Sprinklers.