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Archive for the ‘Maintenance’ Category

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.

Fire Protection: 30 Years Back and 30 Years Ahead

June 24th, 2008

There have been numerous changes in the past 30 years that centered on advances in technology. Manual hydraulics gave way to computer generated hydraulics; drawing boards and triangles turned to CAD. Design criteria choices expanded on the advances in sprinkler applications such as residential, ESFR, extended coverage, and special applications. However, I want to focus on how the “business” of contracting has changed in the past 30 years and what we may see in the next 30.

Labor

30 years ago virtually all fire sprinkler work with the exception of system layout was performed utilizing organized labor. In the 1980’s, the construction industry began an evolution to open shop that resulted in unprecedented growth in work performed by non-signatory companies. All regions of the country now have a strong open shop presence. Of course, all change has consequences. One benefit of organized labor is the training received through the apprenticeship process. The migration to an open shop environment placed a great responsibility on the non-signatory firms to train. This need for training was the main driver in the formation of the American Fire Sprinkler Association (AFSA). However, far too few open shop contractors take advantage of the tools available. Recruiting, training, and retaining qualified field technicians is on of the biggest challenge facing the fire sprinkler industry today.

The next 30 years may bring a whole new look as well as a return to the past. Moving from unskilled to skilled labor in the construction industry has long been a path for upward economic movement. Many of our parents and grandparents are proof of this. This movement continues today and is particularly evident with our immigrant population. The move from unskilled to skilled labor by first and second generation immigrants is especially strong in the Southwest and West regions and in the next 30 years will fill the entire country. The pipe fitter of the future will be second and third generation immigrants taking advantage of these good paying jobs which provide the foundation for solid middle class living. I am not making a judgment with this, just stating what I see. The return to the past could come as a resurgence of organized labor if the open shop portion of our industry does not do more to recruit, train, and retain qualified technicians. Business is dynamic and change always follows the needs.

Outsourcing

The trend to outsourcing has not escaped the fire sprinkler industry. Consider that 30 years ago virtually every fire sprinkler contractor had a fabrication shop. It was considered an essential component to be a successful company. Owners took great pride in the their shops and as welding became a prevalent part of the fabrication process much money was spent in designing good process lines, training welders, and investing in automatic machinery. However, many contractors came to view their shops as an “overhead eating machine” that must be constantly fed. It was and still is a challenge to keep a shop productive and cost effective. Outsourcing fabrication started in earnest in the early 1980’s and has experienced continuous growth. Today, the vast majority of contractors have little or no in-house fabrication capacity.

The outsourcing of sprinkler system layout (design) started a bit later but has accelerated in the last 20 years. Many small contractors in today’s environment outsource all design and even the largest contractors outsource to some degree. The reasons are varied but as with fabrication, there is a movement towards keeping fixed overhead costs to a minimum. The shortage of qualified fire sprinkler layout technicians, the increasing requirements for Professional Engineering oversight by some jurisdictions, and the ongoing investment in ever changing technology have also influenced many contractors to outsource the design and layout of sprinkler systems.

The next 30 years will see a continuation of this trend. In fact, we may see the day in the not too distant future when our industry is dominated by companies who outsource all operational functions. You may think not, but consider this–it was not long ago that General Contractors actually “built” projects using in-house labor and equipment. However, today, nearly all General Contractors simply manage the construction. Could it happen in fire protection? The future may bring a fire sprinkler industry made up of a relatively small number of managing firms outsourcing their fabrication, design, and installation labor to others specializing in each of these areas.

Maintenance and Service

30 years ago, sprinkler maintenance was not governed by a national standard. NFPA only published recommended practices (NFPA 13A) regarding sprinkler system maintenance. Most service and maintenance was reactive in nature and the majority of regular scheduled service performed was driven by the insurance industry to manage risk. The publication of NFPA 25 served notice that things were going to change, but the change was slower than expected. However, coupled with an ever increasing number of protected structures, the increased awareness of systems, and the greater focus on corporate governance regard risk we are seeing an accelerated growth of the inspection, testing, and maintenance market. The increasing number of jurisdictions enforcing the requirements of NFPA 25 and the adoption of laws calling for the certification and licensing of inspectors, maintenance and service is becoming a serious area of investment for many contractors. I do not see this trend slowing.

The next 30 years will bring a tremendous expansion in this market. The industry will see an increased number of companies dedicated to this service alone. Service and maintenance will be the catalyst for growth and the consolidation of our industry. In addition, I believe the ongoing reputation and success of our industry may be largely influenced by the care and maintenance of these systems. With the ever increasing number of sprinkler systems and as these systems age, failure rates will be watch closely. Without good maintenance, our industry runs the risk of a tainted public view the cost/ benefit of installing sprinkler systems. Big opportunity for our industry—big risk as well.

Consolidation

The consolidation of our industry is an interesting subject. 30 years ago, the fire sprinkler industry was dominated by a small number of large national and regional firms. Firms such Automatic, Viking, and Grinnell had the bandwidth to recruit, train, and develop professionals. Even today, most of the senior members of our industry can trace their roots to one of these large organizations. However, with the advent of broader sprinkler use and applications the number of sprinkler companies grew and with the open shop movement, the numbers soared. Today our industry is dominated by the “boutique” contractor.

However, we are seeing an active consolidation movement taking place. Our industry has been “hot” in the investment community for a decade. Investment firms are buying and consolidating companies to develop a national footprint. Large service companies such as Cintas have acquired a number of fire protection contractors to add to their stable of services. Much of this expansion is geared towards the service and maintenance opportunities but system installation also plays a part. Investors see the huge residential market exploding with the seemingly inevitable adoption of universal sprinkler requirements by the codes.

The next 30 years will see the emergence of a growing number of mega-companies whose focus will be service and maintenance. With the challenges of recruiting, training, and retaining, it may take large mega-companies with the capacity of making the required investment to supply our industry with the need numbers of skilled technicians. There will always be a place for the well run boutique, but I have no doubt that our industry will see a large “reconsolidation” on a national level.

There are lots of evolving and unforeseen circumstances that make any prediction fraught with uncertainty and these predictions are simply my “take on things”, but I believe one thing is certain. Our industry will continue to grow because we deliver a product that “means something.” I am proud to deliver products and services that contribute in meaningful ways to our way of life. It has been a great and exciting run for the past 30 years and the future will bring no less.