Calling All Fire Sprinkler Contractors

August 14th, 2009

In January of this year, the NFPA 25 technical committee reviewed and voted on proposals for revisions for the 2011 edition of the standard. The proposals contain a number of submissions that are intended to better define the scope and purpose of the standard. The misinterpretation and misapplication of NFPA 25 is a serious issue for contractors and owners. Considering that it is nearly 17 years since the publication of the first edition, I find it a bit disturbing that there is still so much confusion.

It is generally accepted that the inspections and tests mandated by the standard are not intended to identify or reveal design or installation deficiencies. However, there exists a large number of local and state authorities having jurisdiction that do not understand (or in a few instances refuse to accept) this limited scope of NFPA 25. As a result, contractors and owners are caught in between following what is mandated by the adopted edition of the standard and providing what is required through these misinterpretations. The problem is especially acute in jurisdictions where the contractor is required to report deficiencies or provide a certification of the system status such as in the states of Texas, Georgia, and Florida. Also, the state of California has adopted its own version of NFPA which contains mandatory reporting requirements.

There is logic behind limiting the scope of the standard to the operational status of a system. First, statistics show that a large majority of system failures can be directly attributed to a lack of maintenance. The inspections and tests contained in NFPA 25 are intended to assist the owner in identifying operational deficiencies or revealing a lack of maintenance. We can eliminate a majority of system failures by performing the required tasks at the required frequency. This is not meant to imply that design or installation deficiencies do not exist. It is a simple recognition that the highest benefit comes from investing precious capital resources in the maintenance of fire protection systems.

Second, the installation standards by which water based systems are designed and installed are not retroactive except in the case where an authority having jurisdiction concludes that a condition exists that is so severe as to warrant mandating the retroactive application of the new or revised requirement(s). As a result of the installation standards not being retroactive and coupled with the lack of original installation records for most buildings, it is very difficult for a contractor to determine what requirements were in effect at the time the system was designed and installed (many jurisdictions run years behind the year of publication with the adoption of standards.) In addition, there may have been local amendments to the standard or the jurisdiction may have granted variances on a specific project. The cost to the owner for researching and applying this information for the sake of identifying design or installation defects is simply not worth the benefit. That said, recognize that NFPA 25 does not allow the owner to completely dismiss or ignore design or installation issues. The standard requires the building owner to evaluate the protection systems utilizing a qualified contractor or consultant whenever a change is made to the building itself or its use.

Finally, with the instructions specified by NFPA 25 for conducting inspections and tests, it is simply impractical for most design and installation flaws to be identified. For example, the requirement for identifying and correcting obstructions to sprinkler spray pattern was essentially eliminated from the 2008 edition due to the many changes over time to the rules applying to obstructions and the virtual impossibility to identify the required tolerances from the floor (the vantage point specified by NFPA 25).

However, there is not argument that the language in the standard could be made more precise in regards to scope and intent. The proposals to NFPA 25 demonstrate this. It is time for contractors to stand up, get involved, and assist those who are trying to make these changes. Contractors need to obtain the Report on Proposals (ROP), review the committee actions, and provide comments where he or she feels a committee action is inconsistent with their interests. NFPA allows anyone to comment on committee actions and the committee is required to review each comment and respond. I have seen many committee actions reversed after the comment period. To get involved, you can access the Report on Proposal from NFPA. Your comments are important. NFPA standards are consensus documents and it is time for contractors to speak up. I can tell you from my involvement with NFPA committees, they do listen. So, the call is out–Don’t miss this chance to help shape one of the most important standards in the industry.

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