AUTHOR: Valerie Ziavras

Boston skyline_V. ziavras screenshot

Determining Sprinkler Requirements for High-Rise Buildings

The summer of 2017 saw a number of deadly high-rise fires, including the Grenfell Tower fire and the Marco Polo fire. While deadly incidents like these are usually the result of a combination of failures, these buildings had one major thing in common: they were both unsprinklered. These events led to a review of the high-rise sprinkler requirements for the 2021 edition of NFPA 101, Life Safety Code. While a blanket retroactive sprinkler requirement for high-rise buildings still isn't proposed, a number of technical committees did modify the requirements for their respective occupancies. These proposed changes include: The installation of sprinklers is required in all existing high-rise ambulatory health care occupancies within 12 years of the adoption of the Code. Existing apartments, without a previously approved engineered life safety system, must be sprinklered by January 1, 2033. The installation of sprinklers or the installation of an engineered life safety system is required in all existing high-rise industrial occupancies within 12 years of the adoption of the Code.   The technical committees responsible for the changes noted above carefully considered the impact retroactive requirements have on existing buildings. Sometimes, as is the case with retroactive sprinkler requirements, the benefits far outweigh the costs.   A common misconception is that NFPA 13, Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems, dictates which buildings must have sprinklers.  However, the requirement for a building to be sprinklered will be dictated by a code such as a building code, life safety code, or fire code and the standard (NFPA 13) will tell you how to install the sprinklers. When determining if a building is required to be sprinklered it is important to review the requirements from all applicable codes in your jurisdiction. Just because one of the codes doesn't require sprinklers, doesn't mean the same is true of the others. In the case of differing requirements, the most restrictive of the codes would apply. As each of these codes serves a different purpose and has a different scope, it can lead to the difference in requirements.   We'll look a little more closely at how the sprinkler requirements for high-rise buildings differ between the current editions (2018) of NFPA 1, Fire Code and NFPA 101. High-rise buildings are defined by NFPA 1 and  NFPA 101 buildings where the floor of an occupiable story is greater than 75 ft above the lowest level of fire department vehicle access. When looking at your local requirements, it is important to verify how your jurisdiction defines a high-rise building as many jurisdictions may modify the definition.   2018 Fire Code, NFPA 1 The Fire Code is intended to address firefighter life safety and building protection in addition to occupant life safety.  The high-rise building sprinkler requirements are straightforward. All new high-rise buildings must be protected with sprinklers throughout and all existing high-rise buildings must be sprinklered within 12 years of the adoption of the Code.   2018 Life Safety Code, NFPA 101 The Life Safety Code is primarily concerned with occupant life safety. Like the Fire Code, the Life Safety Code requires that all new high-rise buildings be protected with sprinklers throughout. The differences between the codes arise in existing high-rise buildings. Instead of a blanket requirement retrofit requirement, the Life Safety Code relies on the individual occupancies to determine the extent of, if any, sprinkler protection that is required. If an existing occupancy chapter requires sprinkler protection, the requirement will be found in either the “Extinguishment Requirements” subsection (XX.3.5) or the “Special Provisions” section (XX.4). Many existing occupancy chapters specifically require high-rise buildings to be sprinklered: Assembly Educational Day-care Health care Detention and correctional Hotel and dormitories Residential board and care - large facilities Although mercantile does not specifically call out existing high-rise buildings, there is a good chance they would be required to be sprinklered based on the general sprinkler requirements.   Ambulatory health care, apartments, and business occupancies require either a sprinkler system or an engineered life safety system. An engineered life safety system (ELSS) must provide a similar level of safety as an automatic sprinkler system. It can include protection features such as a partial sprinkler system, smoke detection, compartmentation, or other types of fire and life safety systems. It must be developed by a professional engineer and approved by the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ).   Others, such as industrial and storage occupancies do not require sprinklers or an engineered life safety system due to the relatively low occupant load that is typical of these occupancies. (maybe add a sentence reminding readers about 101 mandating sprinklers only when they are installed for the protection of people not property)   The high-rise sprinkler requirements in the Fire Code and the Life Safety Code are an example of two Codes with differing requirements. To summarize, both require all new high-rise buildings to be sprinklered throughout. The Fire Code requires all existing buildings to be sprinklered within 12 years of its adoption date while the Life Safety Code is occupancy specific. As mentioned above the differences can be attributed to the different scopes and purposes.   A number of cities have passed legislation independent of the codes requiring the retrofit of some or all high-rise buildings with sprinklers. Has your city?  Are you interested in learning more about retrofit? If so, let us know in the comments section!   If you found this article helpful, subscribe to the NFPA Network Newsletter for monthly, personalized content related to the world of fire, electrical, and building & life safety.
Photovoltaics_V.Ziavras image

Many Factors to Consider When Providing Access to Roofs with a Photovoltaic System Installed

The use of renewable energy is on the rise and one popular source is photovoltaics (PV). Section 11.12 in the 2018 Edition of NFPA 1, Fire Code covers everything related to PV installations from marking to rapid shutdown to accessways. There are a number of things to consider when installing a PV system on the roof of a building, but perhaps the most popular topic for questions has to do with the required pathways. Providing proper pathways is extremely important because firefighters need access to the roof for firefighting operations. Often, there is confusion about the size and location of the required pathways. The pathway requirements are different for PV arrays installed on one- and two-family dwellings and townhouses than they are for all other buildings. Here, we will focus on the pathway requirements for all those other buildings. There are essentially three types of pathways that are required. The first type ensures firefighters will be able to get on the roof and are often called perimeter pathways. The second type of pathway ensures that firefighters can move around the roof once they have gained access. These are referred to as “other pathways” in the Code. The final type of pathways provide access to areas for ventilation. The size of the perimeter pathways is going to depend on the building size. For any building with a length or width greater than 250 ft (76.2 m), a minimum 6 ft (1829 mm) pathway is required on all sides. If both the length and width are 250 ft (76.2 m) or less, then the pathway is only required to be a minimum of 4 ft (1219 mm). The images below show what these pathways look like in plain view. The “other pathways” required by the Code allow firefighters to move around the roof as needed. These types of pathways are required under three different conditions. The first is to provide straight line access to ventilation hatches and/or roof standpipes. Wherever ventilation hatches and standpipes are located a pathway of at least 48 in (1219 mm) must be provided.  A 48 in (1219 mm) pathway around all roof access hatches must also be provided. In addition to the pathway around the roof access hatch, at least one 48 in pathway must be provided from the roof access hatch to the roof edge or parapet. The last type in this group is to ensure that there is a pathway every 150 ft (46 m). The 150 ft distance cannot be exceeded in either the length or the width of the building. This essentially limits the PV array to a maximum size of 150 ft by 150 ft (46 m by 46 m). The final category of pathways required are for smoke ventilation. The third type of pathway listed in the “other pathway” paragraph, which limits the array size to 150 ft by 150 ft (46 m by 46 m), will be used to provide ventilation options. The width of this pathway will depend on what, if any, type of ventilation options If there aren't any ventilation options provided (such as skylights or smoke and heat vents) then the pathway must provide a minimum 96 in. (2438 mm) between array sections. If there are existing roof skylights or dropout smoke and heat vents are provided on at least one side    of the pathway, then the pathway must only be a minimum of 48 in (1219 mm) wide. A 48 in. pathway is also permitted where there are 48 in. by 96 in. (1219 mm by 2438 mm) venting cutout options every 20 ft (6096 mm). The last type of required pathway for venting is where nongravity-operated smoke and heat vents are provided. For those, a 48 in. (1219 mm) pathway must be provided around the vent.   It is not uncommon to see PV systems connected to energy storage systems (ESS). This allows the energy generated from the PV system to be stored and used later on when it is needed. For more information on ESS take a look here and at NFPA 855. There are many components to ensuring a PV system is installed correctly. Here we've focused on the pathway requirements for buildings other than one- and two-family dwellings and townhouses. Other requirements such as marking requirements and requirements for rapid shutdown can all be found in NFPA 1, The Fire Code, Section 11.12. If you found this article helpful, subscribe to the NFPA Network Newsletter for monthly, personalized content related to the world of fire, electrical, and building & life safety.

As Businesses Prepare to Re-open, New NFPA Checklist Helps Building Owners and Facility Managers Ensure Fire and Life Safety for all Occupants

During the lockdown policies that have been in place over the past couple of months, many of the ongoing inspection, testing, and maintenance (ITM) activities typically required by locally enforced codes and standards may not have been completed for a variety of reasons. Regardless of the level of ITM performed while occupancies have largely remained vacant, it is imperative that building owners and facility managers verify the performance of all building fire protection and life safety systems prior to reoccupation. As the federal government and many states begin allowing businesses to reopen, NFPA has developed a checklist to help building owners and facility managers prepare, ensuring that fire protection and life safety systems in commercial and multi-occupancy residential buildings are properly checked and functioning. This new resource addresses the factors that should be confirmed by a qualified person before re-opening a building to ensure the safety of all its occupants. Based on the assumption that the building was in compliance prior to being closed, the checklist provides some initial steps to help make sure the occupancy is safe enough to reopen until a qualified professional can complete the regularly scheduled ITM of all fire protection and life safety systems. This process should be completed as quickly as possible. Any alterations to the building that adhere to public health guidelines, such as the installation of physical barriers or automatic door openers, will need to be evaluated as well to ensure that they are properly designed and installed and do not negatively impact the fire protection and life safety systems currently in place. The newly available checklist reflects the latest in a series of COVID-19 related resource developed by NFPA to address fire and life safety issues, concerns, and challenges that have emerged over the past couple of months. Additional resources are added to the NFPA website as they are developed. Visit the NFPA coronavirus landing page to access all newly released documents, as well as existing COVID-19 related information, guidelines, and resources provided to date.

How to Calculate Occupant Load

A fundamental concept of model building codes, fire codes, and life safety codes is that a means of egress is designed to accommodate all occupants of a building. Knowing how to determine the total occupant load of a building is an integral part in determining if the building meets that basic concept. It can be difficult to estimate how many people are going to use a space within a building so most model codes that address egress design will provide requirements for how to estimate this number. If you are working with NFPA 101, Life Safety Code, Table provides occupant load factors for different uses found in a building. Occupant load factors are chosen based on how the space is used and not the occupancy classification of the space. For example, it isn't uncommon for a business occupancy to have spaces that would fall under “business use”, as there will almost always be spaces used for non-business purposes also within the building. A conference room within the business occupancy wouldn't be considered an assembly occupancy unless it was determined to have an occupant load of 50 or more people. For the purposes of determining the occupant load, that conference room has an assembly use. Once the occupant load factor has been determined based on the use of the space, it is then used to calculate the occupant load of that space. Calculating occupant load can be thought of in three steps: Select an occupant load factor Determine the size of the room Apply the occupant load factor to the space There is a common misconception that the calculated occupant load is the maximum number of occupants the space can contain. Instead, the calculated occupant load is actually the minimum number of expected occupants. If the designer, building owner, or other involved party knows the expected number of occupants may be higher than the calculated number of occupants, then that number should be used as the occupant load. If, for example, the building owner knows there will be 5 people working in a storage room that has a calculated occupancy of 3 people, the design needs to be based off of the expected occupant load (5 people). Now, if the building owner says there will only be 1 person in the storage room that has a calculated occupancy of 3 people, the design needs to be based off of the calculated occupant load (3 people).   For a detailed step-by-step explanation of calculating occupant load and to learn about changes to some of the occupant load factors for the current edition (2018), download your free fact sheet! 
Tiny home

Is a tiny house safe? Codes and issues facing tiny houses

What is a tiny house? While the definition varies depending on who you talk to, typically it is considered any house under 400 sq ft. You could fit 6.5 tiny houses inside the average American home (which is around 2,600 sq ft). The tiny house movement is quickly spreading across America. For some buried in student debt, it is viewed as the only way to achieve the American Dream of owning your own home and for others, it is about getting rid of the excess and living more simply. Whatever the reason is, are they safe? Some tiny homes have foundations or are built off-site and tied down to a foundation. Since these sit on a foundation, these have to meet local building code requirements. Safety concerns are related to the large number of tiny homes being built on wheels. You'll see these referred to as THOWs (Tiny Houses on Wheels). These are presenting a problem for AHJs. Local building codes are not enforceable because they aren't built on foundations. Although you might think they should be considered RVs, they are not. The RV standards make it very clear that RVs are only meant for temporary living, not permanent. These tiny houses seem to have created a large problem in the codes and standards world. Many in the tiny house movement like that they are living "outside the law". People build their own tiny homes with their needs in minds. This allows for arguably the most efficient use of space. But, they are technically illegal. While I'm not sure I'm ready to trade in my "large space" for a tiny home, I see the potential. Many have suggested using them to house the homeless or as women's shelters. I've even heard of military families using them. Before we consider using them for such great causes, we need to know they are safe. Some of the major concerns with THOWs: Required number of means of escape Use of ladder in the means of escape Size of windows if they are provided as a means of escape Requirements for smoke alarms and sprinkler systems Lack of foundations Minimum room sizes Plumbing requirements (many THOW owners want to use composting toilets which are largely illegal) Are you ready to trade your "large home" in for a THOW?  Have you seen these in your communities? This seems to be a movement that isn't going anywhere. What safety concerns have you heard regarding these tiny spaces? Picture Credit: The Move | A Tiny House on the Prairies

Latest Articles