Bringing Sprinklers into the Digital Age

Nov. 10, 2023
Connected sprinkler technology can give building owners and facility managers new insights into the health and maintenance of fire suppression systems

This article originally appeared in the November 2023 issue of Security Business magazine. When sharing, don’t forget to mention Security Business magazine on LinkedIn and @SecBusinessMag on Twitter.

Maintaining healthy fire protection systems is not always top of mind for building owners or their designated facility managers – that is, until their system fails, costing them precious time, money and resources.

If a water-based sprinkler pipe freezes, breaks or leaks, for example, the unplanned repair costs can be much higher than the missed preventative updates. As with other facets of building upkeep, it is vastly more effective to take a proactive approach to servicing and maintaining systems, instead of reacting to emergencies after the fact.

This is especially true considering the critical role sprinkler systems play in keeping people and properties safe from fire. While building owners might be tempted to test the limits of their fire sprinkler systems, there are many reasons to connect these systems and modernize them, which is where integrators can find a new business opportunity.

Issues with Aging Sprinklers

Corrosion damage is a leading cause of sprinkler issues, especially in older systems. That is because the interior of the piping is a prime environment for the chemical reaction of corrosion, due to the components of metal (black steel or galvanized pipe), water (either filling the pipes or moisture in the compressed air) and oxygen (trapped or compressed air in the system).

Corrosion puts the structural integrity and performance of the system at risk, along with occupants’ safety. To minimize the likelihood of corrosion, owners with dry-pipe or pre-action fire sprinkler systems can replace oxygen with nitrogen as the system’s air. For wet-pipe systems, venting solutions can remove trapped oxygen and nitrogen can displace oxygen to further extend the life of the system.

Downtime: Additionally, out-of-commission sprinklers interrupt normal business operations. This downtime can result in widespread consequences, so the more time systems are up and running the better. A disruption to “business as usual” looks different across industries and facilities, but almost always causes ripple effects that take a long time to rectify.

For example, a sports or entertainment venue might have to cancel a game or concert, leaving fans disappointed and costing unfathomable amounts of money to reschedule or reimburse. In assisted living facilities, vulnerable residents might have to evacuate, creating undue stress for residents and staff alike.

Sprinkler failures can be more than a headache to fix – they can have devastating consequences, especially in sectors like healthcare. In a hospital, if a fire protection system freezes or leaks, it could not only disrupt patient care – a huge issue on its own – but could also destroy sensitive and expensive equipment such as MRI and X-ray machines. Additionally, certain canopies, like those that cover critical entry points to emergency rooms and surgery centers, require fire sprinkler coverage and are prone to freezing. If these entrances are shut down, patients and staff will experience confusion at best and threats to life safety at worst.  

Connected tools can track spinkler systems and alert when repairs are needed, as well as help facility managers plan ahead and prioritize upgrades.

Connecting Sprinklers to the Digital World

Luckily, digital solutions exist today that make it easier than ever for owners and integrators to avoid these issues by evaluating the functionality of sprinkler systems on a continuous basis. “Connected” tools can track when repairs are needed and help facility managers plan ahead and prioritize upgrades – and even understand the health of their systems across multiple properties.

Additionally, by implementing digital technology, owners may be able to partner with their insurance providers to lower their premiums based on reduced risk.

How do these tools work? First, they add connectivity to fire sprinklers so owners and integrators can predict and address issues before they turn into larger problems. Sensors are placed at strategic points throughout the system to measure variables – from temperature, to system pressures, to water presence – and send the data they collect to the cloud.

These sensors can be retrofitted directly onto the existing system and do not change how it operates – only how owners collect data on its status. Armed with real-time insights, owners have complete visibility into their sprinklers and will be notified if and when action is needed.

These connected solutions utilize Long Range (LoRa) wireless technology that enables wireless signals to travel over long distances and through construction materials. They operate on a quiet frequency band to minimize wireless interference from other devices, and the network is also air gapped – meaning that it is separate from the building’s IT infrastructure. The various sensors send regular updates to a gateway, which then sends the signal over a cellular network to the cloud.

A Complement to Routine Inspections

End-users may pose the question: “Wouldn’t I just find any issues with the sprinkler systems during routine inspections performed on a monthly, quarterly or annual basis? Why is the continuous system visibility offered by connected solutions necessary?”

Integrators should point out that while it is true that the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA)’s recently updated NFPA 25 Standard for the Inspection, Testing, and Maintenance of Water-Based Fire Protection Systems outlines how (and how often) to inspect fire valves and gauges, water flow alarms, fire department connections, pressure control valves and more, these inspections have drawbacks.

First, they do not allow owners to see what systems look like on the inside; thus, warning signs might be missed. Second, these checks only offer “point in time” insights. For example, all components may pass a quarterly inspection, but unseen water is collecting in low points in the system. If the temperature drops rapidly a few weeks later, pipes could freeze, even though the system was recently given the green light.

This does not mean that routine inspections are obsolete or not worthwhile; rather, they should be used in conjunction with continuous data collection for additional peace of mind.

Target Customers

While connected sprinkler solutions are sensible for any building owner or party responsible for fire safety maintenance, those who have had significant issues with their sprinklers in the past are especially likely to benefit, as are those with particularly outdated systems.

Multiple incidents will cause insurance premiums to skyrocket and may even put owners at risk of losing coverage altogether. Similarly, those who live in an area that experiences frequent or unexpected cold weather snaps need digital tools to avoid freeze-ups.

The more properties a building owner manages, the higher the risk that one of the properties will have a sprinkler failure, so portfolio managers are great candidates.

With connected solutions in place, building owners can lean on automated tools to do the heavy lifting for fire sprinkler maintenance. They can spend less time worrying about what failures may be lurking around the corner and more time optimizing other aspects of their properties to better serve their occupants.

Emilie Gorzoch is Fire Services Portfolio Leader at Johnson Controls.