When someone a) badly misinterprets the code, b) abuses his own authority and c) gives the entire fire protection industry a black eye in the process, it’s time to start requiring plan reviewers to be held accountable for some type of professional standard.

After 28 years in this business, I thought I’d seen the worst of the misguided plan reviews, but a couple of years ago a brand new authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) proved me wrong. My client, a builder, had completed construction of 15 one-story homes throughout Wisconsin. All these ranch-style frame houses (eight beds or less) were assisted-care facilities complete with 13-R residential sprinkler systems. For each one, the same fire sprinkler contractor was used and, naturally, the design was pretty much down-pat, code-compliant and approved by every prior jurisdiction.

But the builder had not yet encountered this small Milwaukee suburb. The same design was submitted with calculations tailored to the local water supply. A total of 48 residential fire sprinklers were to be installed. The plans were returned with 37 separate comments, including “basements must be designed in accordance with NFPA 13, light hazard will not protect a typical basement fire. Revise and resubmit, re-review fees will apply.”

No code references were cited to correspond with any comment. Nor did the plan reviewer supply an explanation of how his interpretation of NFPA 13-R led him to believe that the basement (with a clearance height of 7-1/2 feet) was not considered something incidental to most dwellings.

Insanity to Come
Inexplicably, many of the comments were those you would expect to see on a large commercial project, such as:
“Show total area protected by each system,”
“Show outside hose demands,” and
“Indicate who determined design criteria.”

The first sure sign of the insanity to come occurred when the builder called me to say that he spoke with the plan reviewer, who was young and apparently was someone’s son or son-in-law, new to the job. He wanted three sets of calculations - one each for the bedrooms, basement and garage - since he would only consider these to be acceptable if they were “NFPA 13 compliant.”

So I called this reviewer. He was exactly the type to be expected - indignant and bossy. This individual’s arrogance fit the profile of what we do not want to see in a plan examiner: stubborn, holds no degree, inflated sense of self-importance, appears to harbor animosity and will never admit to being wrong. He’d probably wear a badge if one were available.

I asked him specifically about the parameters for calculating the basement. After a short tirade, he demanded nothing short of NFPA 13 ordinary hazard compliance for this home basement. I explained that, to comply with his wishes, the contractor would then have to bring in a  six-inch underground line.

After a pause, he said that he would accept an underground service line sized in accordance with the calculations. I said, well, if we calculate the basement to 13, we would be opening up all 14 heads, and that adds up to a lot of water. Well, he said, he could “tell” that our basement “cross-main” was just too small. He wanted to see “something bigger.”

He finally decided to allow for a calculation of 0.15/900, provided that quick-response heads were used. I didn’t even get to the garage calculation part of it - a total of two dry sidewalls were protecting that. He also let me know what a grand concession this was on his part, and that he was letting me off easy. Footnote: The review fees were nothing short of outrageous.

So for this relatively small house, the next step was to revise plans and submit three sets of calculations, in accordance with both 13 and 13-R depending on the “area hazard” of the house. Okay, fine. These were redesigned and resubmitted, calculated exactly as instructed by the new guy at Village Hall. We now needed a two-inch system. But, thanks to continued incompetence, the plans were rejected once again.

The reason for the second rejection: The reviewer said that he wanted to see a four-inch cross-main in the basement and would settle for nothing less. He stated that for an ordinary-hazard occupancy, the “main” had to be at least four-inch in size. And he did not take kindly to my courteous request that he provide any type of referenced code section to back up this requisite. Shameless - and ludicrous.

The fire sprinkler contractor deserted the job out of frustration, opting to cut his losses before starting installation. The builder spent most of his time on this one at the village, trying to negotiate politely with this AHJ and making very little progress in so doing. To add insult to injury, he spent a small fortune on review fees and took a bath on the whole job.

This is what the bath cost: Sprinkler Contractor 1 was going to do the whole job for $8,700. Sprinkler Contractor 2, who came in to install the “village-friendly” system, charged $15,000. I’m a fire sprinkler advocate, but one thing I don't agree with is the need for four-inch sprinkler piping in my basement to make me feel secure, nor do I need my village representatives demanding that sort of thing.

The Drama of Overregulation

This type of plan review is hardly about fire safety. Frankly, it corrupts and cheapens our mission. Why is it tolerated? Because no one else employed by this municipality knows anything about NFPA codes and wrongly assumes that all contractors are crooks. It’s a strange world out there. But we can build better buildings faster and more efficiently without the drama of overregulation.

I don’t have a problem with someone earning a living by reviewing fire sprinkler plans, but when someone a) badly misinterprets the code, b) abuses his own authority and c) gives the entire fire protection industry a black eye in the process, then it’s really time to start requiring plan reviewers to be held accountable for some type of professional standard.

Here we go again. Rotten-apple plan reviewers cause aggravation, stress, grief, time and money. Power corrupts. And the smaller the amount of actual power held, the longer it goes on unabated. In construction, what matters from a legal perspective is inconsequential considering the reality that challenging the AHJ quickly turns into one giant impediment to progress.

Something needs to be built within an acceptable timeframe, and it’s simply too much trouble (and money) than it’s worth to wage a war you cannot win before the bankers start hollering for their payments.

One cost-effective solution is arbitration, and I have been called in to settle quite a few of these stalemates, which I have written about previously. In a nutshell, two parties reach an impasse over some disagreement, and a third party is required to resolve the deadlock.

I can sum up all I’ve learned during these sessions with a quote from page 30 of a book called Neurosis and Human Growth, which states that “the compulsiveness of the neurotic person’s need for indiscriminate supremacy makes him indifferent to truth, whether concerning himself, others, or facts.”

In some areas of the country, there is a disturbing trend towards fire protection plan reviews containing an egregious amount of paperwork. I once saw a plan review for a simple seven-sprinkler relocate job that was rejected along with 29 comments. If you review plans that are accurate, code-compliant and well prepared, there is nothing wrong or unprofessional with issuing a simple letter of approval.

Believe me, you will receive your fair share of fire sprinkler shop drawings, even CADD-prepared prints that look pristine at first glance,  but are dreadfully lacking in content. I’m talking about plans received that do not show pipe sizes, or pipe elevations, or underground piping, along with hydraulic calculations that are dismally lacking any correlation with the working drawings.

What the plan reviewer must do is prioritize. Focus on what is most critical, including: hydraulic calculations, fire pump, all water supplies, the occupancy classification, the hydraulic graph sheet, fire sprinkler coverage, sprinklers and backflow prevention device used, the design density, K-factors and C-factors, the ‘worst-case’ design area of water application and that the structure is 100% sprinklered.

A complete and proficient grasp of hydraulic calculations is an imperative prerequisite for the review of fire sprinkler drawings, and anything less is a matter of someone getting in the way. We’re all in this business of fire safety for a reason, and it’s bad business to root against someone on your own team.