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What are Fire Sprinkler Systems?

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  • Written By: Malcolm Tatum
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 12 September 2016
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Fire sprinkler systems are types of safety equipment composed of a series of pipes, valves and sprinkler heads that automatically release water into a space in the event of a fire. The release of water can help douse the fire, or at least slow down the progress of the blaze long enough for anyone inside the structure to escape. Used for many years in public buildings, manufacturing facilities, and offices, sprinkler systems of this type are also available for home installation.

The origin of modern fire sprinkler systems is usually traced to early 19th century England. There is evidence of a complex system of different sized pipes connected to a central reservoir being installed at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, in the year 1812. The smaller pipes were perforated, making it possible to release multiple streams of water in the event a fire broke out in the main auditorium, on the stage, and in other selected areas of the theatre.

By the second half of the 19th century, efforts to create automated fire sprinkler systems had begun. Philip W. Pratt of Abington, Massachusetts patented one of the first in 1872. Frederick Grinnell also created and patented several automated designs, with his 1890 invention of the glass disc sprinkler providing the inspiration for fire sprinkler systems in common use today.

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A basic fire sprinkler system includes pipes that carry the water supply to a series of sprinkler heads that are strategically placed in the ceiling of each room in the structure. Pressure valves built into the network of piping helps to control the water pressure and the rate of flow of the water through the system. While there are still some examples of fire sprinkler systems that must be activated manually, most today are equipped with sensors that automatically trigger the action of the fire sprinklers in the event of a fire.

While at one time considered an option in the design of public buildings, many nations today require that any building where large numbers of people gather must be equipped with some type of sprinkler system. Most jurisdictions have specific regulations that must be met, often basing those standards on such factors as maximum number of people allowed in the space at any given time, plus the overall size of the structure. Regular inspections are conducted to make sure all fire sprinkler systems within the jurisdiction are up to code, as well as functioning properly. In many countries, it is impossible to secure insurance on a facility unless a properly configured and functional fire sprinkler system is part of the safety measures inherent in the design of the structure.

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