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Commodity Creep

Changes in Product or Packaging – Plan Now, Save Later

A friend and sprinkler industry veteran once told me that the NFPA standards are written so that they are 100 percent clear, concise and understandable; that is, until two people read the same text. Perhaps the best example of this theory comes when two people with different interests read the texts from NFPA 13, Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems, chapters on storage applications. Short-sightedness and financial interests are often to blame.

We have all had the random cold call from a building owner or developer seeking a price to add onto or build a new warehouse. We ask questions about what they do, where they plan to locate, the storage arrangement, what they will store and how high. Of course there are other questions with more specificity. The point is that this brief conversation almost never covers important aspects of the owner’s business or his product and just how it may evolve over time. The ability of the system to allow changes in commodity, arrangement or storage height should be part of a thorough cost analysis done long before the building structure is designed, but this is not common, especially with small- to medium-size businesses.

The nature of the competitive bidding process often leads to a narrow focus on the initial price of the system, not the flexibility of the proposed system to permit changes in operations that affect the system design criteria. Ask any experienced inspector how many times he has seen a new storage arrangement in a building he previously inspected. He will probably give you several examples from the current workweek.

I recently spoke to an inspector regarding a new account. He noted on his initial inspection report that the sprinklers within the building were over 50 years old and needed to be lab-tested or replaced per NFPA 25, Standard for the Inspection, Testing and Maintenance of Water-Based Fire Protection Systems. The inspector then dispatched a sales representative who promptly scheduled a site visit. While waiting in the office lobby for his contact to come escort him through the facility, a framed newspaper article on the wall caught his eye. With time to kill, he began reading. The heading read something like “Some Company, Inc. to switch from paper to plastic.” The date on the article was from 1992 (red flags began to rise immediately since most 50-plus-year-old sprinklers are rarely installed in a manner capable of protecting stored plastics). His escort led him to the spare sprinkler cabinet and a sample of the existing heads. During the walk, the salesman took note of the seemingly endless racks packed full of plastic materials. He estimated the racks to be 15 ft high with a pallet on top. He figured the roof deck to be about 22 ft. He opened the spare sprinkler cabinet and found that all the existing sprinklers were 1/2-in. sprinklers from some 50-plus years ago.

The following days were filled with phone calls and emails as both parties tried to figure the best plan to remedy the situation. The owner just wanted the heads replaced so he could correct the problem noted on the report and move on with business as usual. The salesman tried to explain just how badly the existing system was underdesigned. The last correspondence between the two was from the salesman stating that he could not simply replace the heads. The owner is upset and confused.

It is important to note that NFPA 25 establishes the responsibility for maintaining the system as strictly the owner’s (see section 4.1.1). Sections and clearly alert the building owner or occupant that changes in storage commodity and/or arrangement may result in necessary system modifications. However, building owners normally focus on their business operations, not their building components. Also, they are not normally well-informed on sprinkler system design requirements.

This situation occurs daily throughout the industry. Perhaps if the storage chapters were completely reorganized and rewritten to state “all storage commodities shall be considered Group A Plastics except where modified below,” we might see more systems with flexibility to allow changes in commodity or arrangement. This (very idealistic) overhaul to the storage criteria is not on the horizon, but this approach should be the common practice when first proposing or designing a sprinkler system for a storage facility. Contractors should not be expected to act as risk consultants and should not carry the legal burden of serving as one. Instead, our advice should center on providing the customer with a system that will permit the owner’s business to continue uninterrupted as products and packaging evolve or vary. If cost is the customer’s only consideration, consider this: Which is more expensive – an upgraded system not yet installed, or an entire system replacement (including an interruption to the owner’s business operations)?

Let’s say a potential customer is constructing a 40,000 ft2 building with a peak elevation of 22 ft. He mills hardwood flooring and needs a warehouse to store raw materials. The unmilled wood will be bundled and stored at the ground level. He tells you the piles often reach 10-11 ft but doesn’t anticipate the piles to be more than 12 ft high. This class II commodity would be protected in accordance with Chapter 13 of NFPA 13 and would qualify for an Ordinary Hazard Group 2 classification. You design and calculate a gridded wet-pipe system using K-8.0 control-mode sprinklers with a 4-in. riser and supply main, 4-in. “near” main, 3-in. “far” main and 11/2-in. gridlines. Is this compliant? Of course.

Two years later, you are performing an annual inspection and find the warehouse now has half of its floor space occupied by rolls of plastic. You ask about the material and learn the company is now offering a product with a thin, plastic backing. The owner assumed that since he is not storing any higher or on racks, that his building was still adequately protected. You investigate and find that the rolls are Group A nonexpanded plastics and are stored in stable piles up to 6 ft. A quick trip to NFPA 13 Chapter 15 tells you the minimum design density is now 0.4 gpm/ft2 over 2,000 ft2 (assume closed array). The owner could avoid major costs by reducing the pile height but this “flattening” would require more floor space than he has to work with. What transpires from this point forward leaves the owner with a huge financial impact. Not only will he have to completely demolish the existing system he just bought two years ago, but his operations will be severely impacted by work involved.

The situation above is not an actual experience, but it is very similar to daily life in the sprinkler industry. Chances are if you’re reading this article, you’ve heard of or experienced a very similar scenario. The situation is not always avoidable, and it is nearly impossible to predict the future storage needs of a customer. However, the initial conversations should focus on worst-case protection needs, not current products. The roof deck height mentioned above was never addressed but vertical limit of 22 ft permits storage far in excess of what the system was designed for. While stored hardwood flooring material is not quite as hazardous as rolled plastic, the potential for increased storage heights, and varying commodity classes existed before the first piece of pipe was ever hung.

So how much does it cost the owner to plan ahead? Let’s start over and plan as if we already knew we would see this result. Maybe an internet search showed his competitors were already offering hardwood flooring with a plastic backing and we anticipated our customer would soon do the same. First, we would need the heads to be K-11.2 per section 12.6.3 of NFPA 13. You would also need to reduce the spacing from 130 ft2 to 100 ft2 per sprinkler, resulting in 92 additional sprinklers (assuming perfectly maximized spacing). The riser and supply main, as well as the “near” main, would probably change to 6 in. The “far” main might increase to 4 in. and the grid lines would likely increase to 2 in. Again, assume the available water pressure and flow are adequate and support this example. If you assume an average 10 ft of line pipe per sprinkler remained constant in both designs, we’re adding just under 1,000 ft of pipe for the reduced spacing/increased sprinkler count and increasing about 3,000 ft of pipe from 1½-2 in. I completed two estimates keeping the labor per head constant and found the difference to be under $0.50/ft2. This would result just under $20,000 of additional cost on the initial build. This is certainly not a small increase, but the cost to install the system twice is obviously far greater. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jason Gill is a contract sales representative and project manager for Fire & Life Safety America, Richmond, Virginia. He has 18 years of experience in the sprinkler industry as a designer, design manager, estimator and project manager. Gill is holds a NICET Level IV certification in Water-Based Fire Protection Systems Layout.

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