The Future of the NFPA 13 Family
Key issues for next-generation automatic sprinklers.
NFPA Journal®, January/February 2009
Over the past six months, as part of the Fire Protection Research Foundation’s 25th birthday celebration, we have met with many of the important constituents in the NFPA codes and standards process. The goal of these meetings is to help the Foundation plan its research programs for the future – to be sure that we are doing our part to help NFPA’s technical committees prepare for upcoming changes to codes and standards with supporting research and information.
Recently, we met with the leaders of the automatic sprinkler project to learn about the challenges facing automatic sprinkler fire protection in the upcoming years. NFPA 13, Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems, is constantly evolving to address changes in the hazards of the commodities that automatic sprinkler systems are designed to protect, as well as advances in the technology of protection.
The Foundation invited 30 leaders from the various technical committees involved in the automatic sprinkler project to consider the emerging issues facing these systems, and to submit research topics for consideration. In September, at a meeting in Georgia, 20 members met to discuss, review and prioritize the issues. There are many key concerns, ranging from the immediate need to determine spacing requirements for hanging and bracing of sprinkler systems for earthquake protection, to over-arching issues associated with determining a technically based means to classify the hazard associated with a particular commodity. In all, more than 30 items were considered.
One of the key issues the group asked the Foundation to address is the matter of performance criteria for residential sprinkler systems. NPFA 13D has been in existence since 1975, but the recent growing interest in residential sprinklers has brought increased focus to improving the standard’s requirements. Today’s homes have rooms in many shapes and sizes that affect the performance of home fire sprinklers. Along with changes in our homes are changes in our abilities to quantify and predict the hazards that home fire sprinklers must address. It’s the right time to take another look at required performance.
The group identified another aspect of residential sprinkler performance that is worthy of a second look—water requirements. As sprinklers become more widespread, there is a need to refine our engineering approaches to this issue, and to understand the true impact of home fire sprinklers on municipal water demand, particularly in the context of other forms of fire suppression in times of competing demands on water resources.
In addition to residential issues, the group also identified a key commercial consideration: how tomorrow’s sprinkler technology can protect stored commodities. A stroll through your nearest hardware megastore will remind you that rapid changes are taking place in how we store and sell chemicals and other commodities. Plastics, for example, are used to store an ever larger share of the products we use every day. Retailers and warehouse owners are becoming more innovative in the means they use to store and retrieve stock, with new and ever-higher shelving types and more interfaces with consumers. Sprinkler technology is keeping pace with these developments, as are innovative sensor technologies and fire fighting techniques. We are also seeing a growth in novel forms of indoor storage, from "boatels"—vertical storage for boats – to portable "POD" storage units. Sprinkler protection in unique applications such as these requires a careful assessment of the hazard and the geometric and other constraints on performance. NFPA 13 provides the framework to match all these hazards with the appropriate fire protection strategy, and there is a continuing need to provide data to inform its requirements.
While we have traditionally relied on full-scale testing to help us understand the complex interaction of water spray, fire and stored commodities, we are increasingly moving toward models that predict the interaction of a fire plume or a smoke interface with a sprinkler spray. But we need validation for these models so that we can apply them to understanding the ongoing challenges facing automatic sprinkler systems.
The Foundation is rolling up its sleeves to develop projects in these areas. To that end, we have formed the Automatic Sprinkler Fire Protection Research Council to help us to continue to focus on the priority challenges for this important aspect of fire protection and the development of NFPA standards. To participate, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kathleen H. Almand, P.E., FSFPE, is the executive director of the Fire Protection Research Foundation.