What causes sprinklers to fail when they are typically very reliable?

“Independent tests have shown that sprinklers are 96% effective during a fire incident, outstripping any other fire protection solution.”

As the owner of a fire protection company, I know that sprinklers are the most effective way of protecting lives and property against fire. But that’s not because I’m in the business of sprinkler systems, it’s because there’s plenty of data to prove it. In fact, independent tests have shown that sprinklers are 96% effective during a fire incident, outstripping any other fire protection solution.

It’s also not a coincidence that most insurers will agree that when insuring a building, the most important factor is whether the owner has a sprinkler system and that the system was compliantly designed, tested, installed and maintained. The risk averse insurer knows that a fully functioning sprinkler system is the best way to save lives and protect a building so it will be the biggest factor in assessing an insurance claim.

Sprinklers have also been around for a while, so we’ve had plenty of time to test them. The first was installed over 140 years ago, in 1812. By 1890, we pretty much had a similar sprinkler system to what we have today.

So, if sprinklers are so reliable what causes them to fail 4% of the time?

Even now, in our modern, high-rise times we are still getting things wrong when it comes to sprinklers. When we think of sprinkler failure we should be pointing the finger right back at ourselves. The most common cause of failure isn’t the sprinkler system itself but us humans. In fact, out of the 4% failure rate only 2% is down to component malfunction the rest, human error. We also know that the biggest causes of sprinkler malfunction can be boiled down to 5 reasons –

“If sprinklers are so reliable what causes them to fail 4% of the time?”

The number one reason sprinklers fail is due to closed valves, contributing to a colossal 66% of sprinkler failure rates. A section of a sprinkler system is usually taken offline or ‘shut off’ for planned or unplanned maintenance by closing its local valve. When we say a system is shut off, we mean a control valve is closed which stops water flow past a certain section and from ultimately reaching the sprinkler heads.

Systems that are offline contribute to one of the biggest sprinkler failure misconceptions. Most of the time when a sprinkler fails it’s actually fully capable of stopping a fire but is prevented from activating because of human error. What’s more, the worrying fact is the percentage of closed valves failures could amount to a much higher figure.

Right now, there are hundreds of closed or unwired valves across UK homes and businesses. Over my company’s history, I have seen far too many situations where valves are still being left in the incorrect position and without proper monitoring, which is putting unnecessary lives at risk. The only reason that they haven’t malfunctioned yet is simply because there hasn’t been a fire. It is not an exaggeration to say that closed sprinkler valves are a ticking time bomb in many of our buildings across the country.

Another human related factor and 16% of the failure rate is manual intervention, or when someone gets in the way of letting the fire sprinkler carry out its function. Manual intervention includes building staff or firefighters accidently turning a system off before the sprinklers have operated, for example when a fire isn’t immediately visible. Another cause could be an obstruction which is installed after the sprinkler system, either preventing the sprinkler from detecting heat from the fire or expelled water from reaching the source of the fire.

It is my belief that if trade-offs are implemented when installing a sprinkler system, and what such as less means of escaping, then surely we have a duty to ensure the sprinkler system will operate correctly when they are most needed.

Although, sometimes corners are cut when it comes to testing and maintenance, lack of maintenance isn’t always purposeful. More often than not it’s poor organisation or lack of knowledge that is at fault. Lack of maintenance is however still a human error and contributes to 10% of sprinkler failure rates.

Building owners who rely too heavily on sprinkler contractors to inspect and maintain systems properly when it is their duty to be compliant is a maintenance issue we are currently sleep walking into. Building owners currently know far too little about the system they’re ultimately responsible for.

Sprinkler contractors also have a huge task taking on new service contracts, prices are very competitive, and they need to provide a variety of access equipment, risk assessments and method statements. Not forgetting that sites often have insufficient records or any knowledge of where the equipment is and building access restrictions can also play their part. It is common for a building owner to not have ‘as fitted’ drawings, making it impossible to know what equipment the owner has and what the contractor needs to maintain it. Add all of these factors together and it can trigger a domino effect where visit after visit we fail to carry out a compliant test, until it’s too late and fire hits.

When designing sprinkler systems, one of the most important considerations is determining occupancy classification because it has a huge impact on design and installation. Installing the wrong fire protection system is again human error related and down to knowing what sort of system you have installed and whether it is designed according to the correct risk for your premises. Currently, inappropriate systems contribute to 6% of sprinkler failures.

I strongly believe a sprinkler system must be evaluated throughout a building’s lifecycle. A building and its contents can change over time and with it the risk hazard. For instance, if a landlord or tenant has changed how they stockpile, now house flammable liquids, extended the property or has noticed a reduction in water supply, it will affect whether their sprinkler system is ‘fit for purpose’.

And finally, damaged sprinkler components, the only non-human related failure on the list, make up 2% of the 4% failure rate. Components typically become faulty when sprinkler systems are damaged by explosions or by the collapse of ceilings, roofs or the entire building and are very rare chain reactions. Currently 0.08% of all sprinkler activations fail because of damaged components.

“Closed valves are currently the leading cause of sprinkler failures and really shouldn’t be.”

Closed valves are currently the leading cause of sprinkler failures and really shouldn’t be. Firstly, it’s clearly stated in regulations BS EN 12845, NFPA 25 and FM that all sprinkler valves require regular testing and inspection for their correct position. If all codes were followed, the majority of sprinkler failures would be averted. Technical Bulletin 203 also states, “stop valves controlling the flow of water to sprinklers shall be operated to ensure that the stop valve and any monitoring are in working order, and securely refastened in the correct mode”. This begs the question – why is testing not being carried out properly or even at all?

I, like imagine many people in the industry, look up whenever I walk into a building to see if there are sprinklers installed. But once I see them, it doesn’t always put my mind at ease because I know too well the reasons why they may not operate correctly. Instead, a reem of questions flood in, including – are there any closed valves? Is something obstructing them? Is the system tested and maintained correctly? I ask myself all these questions because we all must. We rely on these systems to save lives and property so, why aren’t we looking after them properly? For something so critical, we are far too complacent and let too many human errors affect the optimum safety of fire sprinklers.

All sprinkler experts agree that if sprinkler systems were installed at Grenfell tower then it would have saved many lives. But what if the sprinkler system was shut off or poorly maintained? Fire sprinklers should always be considered in any building, but it is also up to us to ensure that human error no longer contributes to loss of life.

Since Grenfell, many of us in the industry have felt that it is our responsibility to try and bring experts together to fight for change, whether its new laws that call for the installation of sprinklers or stricter codes and standards that combat manual intervention and negligence. If legislations conclude that fire sprinkler are the best solution to eliminate the risk of loss of life and property then, surely we as an industry and regulatory bodies have an inherent duty to fulfil that mandate. Because if we fail to do so, it ultimate results in loss of life, the stakes could not be higher

Compared to other industries we are playing catch up and must work hard to innovate and produce ways to reduce unnecessary sprinkler failure and develop sprinkler systems that are smarter, more efficient and automated where possible. I have been personally lobbying for a qualified, independent annual inspection as a mandatory requirement, very much like a vehicle MOT. This is something that VdS have currently adopted in Germany and should be crucial for a life safety system in the UK.

And all of this is achievable. We have the skills and resources in the UK to reduce the human impact on sprinkler failures and make compliance much easier for building owners. Because when fire sprinklers are correctly designed, tested and maintained they are without doubt the most reliable way to protect people, homes and businesses from fire.

Stuart Cain, is the CEO of Project Fire, a manufacturer of innovative fire protection products. Project Fire develop smart solutions that help make compliance easier, more efficient and sustainable.