Emergency Preparedness: Fire Sprinkler System Retrofits

Building owners and facility managers are choosing to retrofit older facilities to be prepared for fire-related emergencies.

By Lainey Liotta
From the June 2023 Issue

When fire strikes, every second counts. A fire can rage out of control within seconds, generating a deadly mix of toxic gases, thick smoke, and extreme heat.

Fire sprinkler systems play a critical role in minimizing the threat. While smoke alarms play an important role in alerting building occupants, a fire sprinkler system stops the fire before it spreads and turns deadly. Often the fire has been put out by the time the fire department arrives.

fire sprinkler system
(Photo: Adobe Stock)


That’s why fire sprinklers are mandatory for many buildings. Under National Fire Protection Association Standards (NFPA 13), automatic sprinklers are required in:

  • New commercial structures with a fire area of more than 5,000 square feet
  • Any remodeling or expansion that extends the building’s size to 12,000 square feet
  • Buildings more than 55 feet tall
  • Townhomes with more than two residential occupancy units within a structure.

This means that many buildings have sprinklers—but many older facilities do not. Fortunately, many building owners and facility managers are choosing to retrofit older facilities to be prepared for emergencies and protect people and property.

Choosing Fire Sprinkler System Piping Materials

There are a variety of considerations in choosing materials for a fire sprinkler system, whether you are planning a renovation, retrofit, or new construction. The primary piping options include steel and CPVC.

CPVC piping is UL Listed and FM approved for all light hazard occupancies as defined by NFPA Standards (NFPA 13, 13R, and 13D). Since its launch nearly 40 years ago, over two billion feet of CPVC fire sprinkler systems have been installed in apartments, townhomes, schools, offices, hospitals, high-rises, and other facilities around the globe.

Since its introduction over 30 years ago, CPVC has been an ideal material for fire sprinkler systems. It is a thermoplastic made from a base PVC polymer that has been fortified with additional chlorine molecules. The extra chlorine, along with specialized additives, enables the pipe and fittings to stand up to intense heat and pressure. When directly exposed to flame, a charring layer forms on the outside of the pipe, which functions as a thermal barrier to protect the inside of the pipe, allowing water to effectively flow through the pipes to suppress a fire.

In evaluating options, consider four key advantages of CPVC pipe and fittings over steel.

1. Cost Advantage

Compared to steel pipe, CPVC pipe and fittings save money on material costs, labor, and equipment needed for installation. Key savings come through:

  • Lower material costs. CPVC offers superior hydraulics, which means system designers can specify smaller diameter pipe while ensuring the same level of water flow.
  • Easier, more efficient installation. CPVC is lightweight and flexible, which makes it easier to transport throughout the jobsite and to install in tight spaces. By comparison, it is cumbersome to carry long lengths of steel pipe through an existing facility while avoiding damage to walls and trying to fit it into elevators. CPVC is joined with a solvent cement welding process, which means fabrication and installation can be a one-person job. That reduces labor costs compared to steel, which requires multiple installers.
  • Simple design alterations. When plans change, it’s easy to adapt CPVC. With steel pipes, parts of the system may have to go back to off-site fabrication and rework is costly.
fire sprinkler system
(Photo: adobe stock / evening_tao)


2. Cleaner, Less Disruptive Installation

CPVC’s inherent flexibility and simple solvent cement joining process translates to speed of installation. This can be especially critical in meeting tight deadlines and minimizing tenant disruption.

Equally important, installation is much less disruptive for building occupants during retrofits. With steel installation, occupants typically must vacate the property. With CPVC, by contrast, contractors can work around occupants without noise and open flame.

For instance, an office complex in Sacramento, California remained operational during a fire sprinkler system retrofit. Installers worked after office hours and ensured the job site was cleaned up so a doctor’s office in the building could see patients in the morning. With a steel installation, there would have been much more cleaning required and equipment to move before crews ended work for the night.

3. Reduces Long-Term Maintenance Costs

Unlike CPVC, metallic pipe is prone to three serious issues:

  • Corrosion eats away at the interior of the pipe, creating friction along the surface and eventually causing pinhole leaks that result in costly, disruptive repairs.
  • Scaling occurs when minerals in the water attach to the pipe, usually near fittings and corners. Like corrosion, scaling can restrict water flows and diminish performance.
  • Microbiologically Influenced Corrosion (MIC) accelerates corrosion, infects the water supply and creates system failure.

By contrast, CPVC naturally resists corrosion, scaling, and MIC. That means maintenance costs are lower and the lifetime of the system is extended. If repairs are necessary, they are relatively simple for the same reasons installation is easier compared with steel system. By comparison, steel pipe requires hot work and messy cutting oils.

4. CPVC Supports Sustainability Goals

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Eco-friendly building techniques are important in today’s buildings, and CPVC can offer significant advantages over steel pipe. An ISO-compliant lifecycle assessment found that BlazeMaster pipe and fittings are much less harmful to produce and have half the climate change impact of steel pipe.

Based on these advantages, CPVC offers an effective alternative for retrofitting existing facilities or for new construction to prepare for fire emergencies. By choosing CPVC, facility executives can save money, minimize disruption for building occupants, ensure reliable, low-maintenance protection, and protect the environment. However, it is important to remember that not all CPVC is created equal. Be sure to choose a brand that offers industry-leading science, service, and safety.

Lubrizol Advanced MaterialsLiotta is Senior Market Manager for Fire Protection at Lubrizol Advanced Materials, which includes BlazeMaster Fire Protection Systems and freezemaster antifreeze for fire sprinkler systems.

Do you have a comment? Share your thoughts in the Comments section below, or send an e-mail to the Editor at jen@groupc.com.

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