If you haven't just finished a fire sprinkler retrofit recently, chances are that you'll be starting one soon. Seems like everyone is jumping on the retrofit bandwagon-from hospitals to hotels to office buildings. College dorms, in particular, are producing a hotbed of activity, as are downtown high-rises.

So why all the interest in retrofits?

Basically there are three reasons driving the increase in the number of fire sprinkler retrofits. First, more people are safety conscious and see fire sprinklers as a means to save lives. This interest in retrofits for safety reasons dates back to the mid-1980s when a national television broadcast showed the hundreds of hotel guests jumping out of the windows of the MGM Grand in Las Vegas to avoid a life-threatening fire. From that time on, hotel/motel retrofits became big business.

Second, from a cost standpoint, a retrofit can significantly lower insurance premiums. Most retrofits, in fact, pay for themselves within five to seven years just in reduced premiums.

The third and probably biggest factor driving activity is the change in legislation that mandates the installation of life-saving fire sprinkler systems in many public and private facilities.

Regardless of the reason for the retrofit, cost is always an issue. In this case, it's a two-part issue. First is the cost of the system itself, which includes material, design and labor needed to install it and then conceal it. Second, and often the costlier element, is the occupancy rate, which is defined by the lost income during the retrofit process. Hotels, hospitals and office buildings, in particular, are affected by occupancy rates. For this reason, speed of installation is critical to minimize loss. This occupancy rate is usually not discussed and is carried 100% by the owner.

Time is also critical for college dorms, which usually seek to complete the retrofit during the summer before students return to class. So material and labor costs, in addition to ease of installation, often become the guide by which the various fire sprinkler technologies are judged.

Available Technologies

There are essentially three technologies to choose from when it comes to fire sprinkler systems: copper, steel and CPVC.

Copper for commercial use is probably the least popular option due to its high cost and labor-intensive operation. In addition, copper presents a number of safety challenges, especially in retrofit situations, since it must be installed with the use of torches.

Steel has been the long-standing material of choice because of its low material cost and wide availability. However, due to its difficult installation, more engineers have sought alternatives in recent years. Not only is steel heavy and dirty to handle, but because it requires the use of power machinery to install, it is extremely noisy, creating a significant nuisance factor for building operators who are still attempting to run a profitable business during the retrofit. Hotels and hospitals, for instance, usually have to shut down entire floors at a time during steel retrofits. In addition, when steel pipe is cut, it results in a messy, time-consuming cleanup.

A more recent option, and one that has grown in popularity due to its competitive pricing and ease of installation and fabrication is CPVC fire sprinkler systems. Lightweight, yet durable, CPVC pipe and fittings cut engineering time by about 50%, since no pre-fabrication is required. CPVC pipe arrives on the jobsite immediately and can be altered on-site without delay to fit specific areas. Due to its flexibility and light weight, as well as the fact that no torches are required for installation, CPVC pipe can also be hung closer to the ceiling or even from side walls to accommodate tight design plans. This is especially appealing to facility managers and owners who may be faced with an asbestos problem.

A number of commercial facilities have been able to bypass an entire asbestos removal program when they specified a BlazeMaster CPVC fire sprinkler system. Since BlazeMaster CPVC pipe could be hung from the walls, installers never had to touch the asbestos on the ceiling.

But major facilities have other reasons for choosing CPVC fire sprinkler systems, such as saving time. College dorm retrofits, for example, must usually be completed between May and August to accommodate returning students. This was a critical factor for a major university, which houses the largest dormitory in the world with 3,500 students, to choose a BlazeMaster CPVC system. They recognized that an entire retrofit could be completed on time by specifying a CPVC piping system.

With BlazeMaster CPVC pipe and fittings, a one-step solvent system bonds joints easily and neatly, resulting in faster installations and cleanups. Its light weight (approximately 1/6 the weight of steel) means it can be moved and stored quickly, so that in many cases, only one room needs to be closed off at a time. And its tremendous jobsite flexibility means you can work around owners' needs and schedules, since you can virtually start anywhere in the system and work in either direction, then stop and start somewhere else.

This type of flexibility was important to Mercy Medical Center, a 476-bed hospital in Canton, OH, that recently completed a multi-floor retrofit. BlazeMaster CPVC systems were chosen because of tight space constraints above the ceiling. Its quiet installation also meant less disruption and intrusion for patients. And the project was completed in less than half the time projected for a steel system. The hospital plans to use BlazeMaster CPVC fire sprinkler systems for its entire 900,000-square-foot retrofit project.

Also important is the longevity of the system. Since CPVC pipe is naturally corrosion and impact resistant and immune to Microbiologically Influenced Corrosion (MIC), it has a 50+-year life expectancy with a safety factor of two per ASTM test criteria. Further, it is UL listed for Light Hazard applications, as defined in NFPA 13, 13R and 13D. From a safety standpoint, it offers low flame spread and low smoke characteristics, and has been fire tested in accordance with UL 1821 (Thermoplastic Sprinkler Pipe and Fittings for Fire Protection Service). The fire test is ten minutes in duration. During the fire exposure, BlazeMaster pipe is exposed to temperatures in excess of 1,600 degrees F.

Other Considerations

When to retrofit: Retrofits should ideally be timed with other renovation projects. Since you need to get behind walls or above ceilings, it's a good time to think about repainting, re-wiring existing fire alarm systems and smoke detectors, and evaluating stand pipes and fire pumps. In the case of the two latter initiatives, it is recommended that you conduct a water test and talk to your local Authority Having Jurisdiction to determine if your existing pipes and pumps will support a fire sprinkler retrofit or if a replacement is necessary.

Design of the system: Most fire sprinkler retrofits are designed in one of two ways. Either run the pipe down the hallway and into each room, which means you will eventually need to hide the pipe and possibly move exit signs. Or go through the walls from room to room. This method creates more holes that must be covered but eliminates the need to hide the pipe in the hallway.

Selection of spinklers: There are more than 2,000 different types of sprinklers on the market today. The difference is in the aesthetics, cost and throw pattern. For the most part, sprinklers are available in white or chrome.

Exposed pendant sprinklers are the most conspicuous but may be preferred by building owners who want to reassure tenants or guests. With concealed sprinklers, all you see are inconspicuous white plates. In between these two options are semi-recessed and flush sprinklers. Side-wall sprinklers are frequently used over beds in hotels and hospitals.

Beyond appearance, however, throw pattern is a key consideration. If a head can throw the water farther, you can reduce the number of heads you need to install to achieve the same results. However, you may need to purchase a larger pump to support the throw pattern, but often the money you save on fewer sprinklers more than justifies the cost of a new pump, depending on the size of the building.