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NFPA 25: Compliance Need Not Break the Bank

July 26th, 2010

Maintenance of water-based fire suppression systems can be a challenge in a down economy that is filled with corporate directives to cut costs. This session examines strategies for inspecting, testing, and maintaining systems in accordance with NFPA 25 without busting the budget. The session reviews cases where owners, AHJs, and service providers have worked together to manage the risk of loss from fire while keeping the costs as low as possible.

Recording from 2010 NFPA Conference in Las Vegas, NV.
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Russ Leavitt - NFPA 25 Compliance Need Not Break the Bank

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.

Plumbing Contractors Needed for Residential Fire Sprinkler Work

June 17th, 2009

Part two of a five part series focusing on the rapidly growing residential fire sprinkler market and why plumbing contractors are best positioned to capture this opportunity.

To view part one of the series visit “Residential Fire Sprinkler Requirements Coming Soon!

The incorporation of amendment RB64-07/08 in the International Residential Code (IRC) for fire sprinklers to be installed in all single family homes constructed after January 1, 2011 will have a dramatic impact on the demand for qualified design and installation technicians. In addition, the demand for licensed contractors will experience a corresponding rise since most states and jurisdictions have some form of contractor licensing requirements.

It is estimated nationally that approximately 7500 firms were actively engaged in fire sprinkler contracting during 2008. The vast majority of these entities were of the cottage variety with average annual revenues of $1 million and less than 10 full-time employees. Industry data indicates that approximately 42 million sprinklers were installed in 2008 with less than 1 million of these in single family homes. Estimates indicate that there are presently 15,000 trained installation technicians serving the fire sprinkler industry and the vast majority are focused on commercial applications. As the 2009 IRC is adopted by various states and local jurisdictions, the numbers of qualified contractors and trained labor needed will stretch the available resources to the point where demand will far outstrip the available supply.

Using HUD’s 40 year average for new single family home construction and considering when the code requirement will be adopted by virtually all jurisdictions, it is estimated over 7000 additional trained installation technicians will be needed to meet the increased demand. However, even when conservatively assuming that only one-half of the new homes are sprinklered, the number is still over 3000 additional technicians. The plumbing industry is well positioned to supply a good part of this demand for skilled labor. Sprinkler systems are essentially a piping system equipped with nozzles (fire sprinklers) having specific installation criteria. The average plumber can quickly develop the skills needed to install fire sprinkler systems. In fact, it is expected that the majority of single family residential fire sprinkler systems will be combined with the domestic systems and, in reality, the plumbing contractor is the only choice to effectively install these systems.

Even with the historically low numbers of single family residences under construction in the current economic downturn, this is a billion dollar opportunity that the prudent plumbing contractor cannot ignore. However, there are barriers to entry. Licensing, insurance, and access to training programs are the most daunting, but all can be overcome.

Entities installing fire sprinkler systems are required to be licensed contractors in most states. Just as with plumbing, the requirements run the gamut. Some states are as simple as filling out an application and paying a fee while, at the other end of the spectrum, there are states that require years of experience, exams, and certifications in fire protection technology. Fire Smarts, LLC, in partnership with the PHCC, is developing resources specifically to help plumbing contractors sort out these differences and identify licensing requirements for the states they service. One movement that is already underway is creating a license that is specific to residential fire sprinkler systems to recognize the simpler design issues and the economy of having plumbing contractors involved in the market. The states of Washington, Texas, South Carolina and Georgia among others are examples of states that have already created, or are considering creating, this separate category.

Insurance is a barrier that the market place will address. There are reports that plumbing contractors who contacted their brokers have been quoted extravagant premiums when adding fire sprinkler installation to their business coverage. Others report that some insurance carriers are beginning to extend coverage for fire sprinkler installation provided that a qualified third party is supplying an approved system design. The demand for this insurance will open the insurance market and the carriers will meet the demand as the market expands. In the meantime, in regions where residential fire sprinkler systems are common such as California and Nevada, the general contractors have rolled the fire sprinkler contractor’s protection under their umbrella when the contractor was not able to bind coverage.

Fire Sprinkler Labor Needs

Training is the remaining significant barrier. Programs are in development at this time that will be geared to take experienced plumbers and add the skill set for fire sprinkler installation. The manufacturers of sprinkler piping, sprinkler heads, valves, and multi-purpose systems also have training programs for fire sprinkler contractors that can easily be adapted to the plumber. In addition, apprenticeship programs can be updated to incorporate modules that specialize in residential fire sprinkler requirements.

The market demand is coming and those contractors who are prepared to take advantage of the opportunity will see a significant return on the investment needed. It costs virtually nothing to investigate. With a market that is estimated to be $3 billion annually, this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity is calling for your attention.

In Part 3 of this series, “Residential Fire Sprinklers: Plumbing Contractor Competitive Advantage #1”, Steven Scandaliato, SET, will discuss how the fire sprinkler industry has little experience in residential construction compared to the extensive experience and existing general contractor relationships that residential plumbing contractors have and how this creates a clear competitive advantage.

New Report Analyzing the Residential Fire Sprinkler Market Potential Released

September 22nd, 2008

Residential Fire Sprinklers Market Growth and Labor Demand AnalysisIn response to the passing of code proposal RB64-07/08 with public comment #2 to the International Residential Code (IRC), I have authored a report with contributions from Steven Scandaliato, SET, and Ryan J. Smith, to provide a residential fire sprinkler market analysis that projects the market potential and labor demand created by the eventual widespread enforcement of these code changes.

There’s no question that the recent passing of residential fire sprinkler requirements to the International Residential Code will change the industry in a breath and timeline never experienced before. How the industry responds to the need for additional skilled labor will determine how quickly this market potential can be fully realized.

I invite you to read the Residential Fire Sprinkler Market Growth and Labor Demand Analysis. This report, published by Fire Smarts LLC, is available for free download at www.ResidentialFireSprinklers.com .

Download the Residential Fire Sprinklers Market Growth and Labor Demand Analysis Report .

Be careful what you ask for. . .

July 2nd, 2008

As featured in the July 2008 edition of “Fire Protection Contractor” magazine

FPC Cover July 2008

I first want to state that I am a big proponent for training and certification programs in our industry. I believe we have an obligation to increase the professionalism in how we deliver products and services. I have always taken this serious. I was fortunate that I started my career with a company that encouraged professional growth and as a result, I (along with others) was able to complete all the examination requirements for NICET certification in fire sprinkler layout early in my career. However, I also learned there were many in the fire sprinkler field who felt the pursuit of certification was a waste of money and time. This surprised me somewhat because I believed then, and even more so today, that supporting certification is one way of demonstrating our commitment to our profession. At the same time, I admit that while working on my personal certification the motivation was not entirely about taking the high road. My practical side also believed that if NICET certification really “caught on,” it might become more difficult to obtain—so get it out of the way early.

Of course, NICET certification or any credential is just one part of career development and by itself does not make an engineer, layout technician, or inspector professional but it is a big part. As a result, over the years I have encouraged professional development in my company as well as the industry. I have authored training materials, taught seminars, served on committees and participated in the code making process. I share this only to demonstrate that I am not simply an observer in the process of training and certification but an active participant.

Over the years, obtaining NICET certification has certainly become necessary in the fire protection industry. A number of state and local jurisdictions now require certification to obtain a fire sprinkler contractor’s license, qualify for a Certificate of Competency, or be named as a Responsible Managing Employee. Many jurisdictions require working plans to be signed by a certified layout technician, the contractor to have a certified technician on staff or individuals to be certified in order to obtain a permit or license to perform inspections and testing. The objectives behind these rules are worthy and I agree with most of the arguments for having such requirements. However, all of us involved in the industry must be mindful there are unintended consequences–some of them serious.

As the CEO of a large organization that has NICET certified technicians in all the fire protection sub-fields I deal with some of these unintended consequences on a regular basis. In addition, I occasionally serve as an expert in litigation which often involves certified technicians and as a result see consequences that others face.

One consequence includes exasperating an already serious shortage of certified technicians and the high costs of developing and training to meet this shortage. For example, several states have enacted requirements for all inspectors of water based systems to be certified (level 2 or 3). This has created and continues to create a serious challenge to keep inspection costs as low as possible for the building owner because an inspector cannot work alone until certified (up to 5 years depending on the certification level required). This will force contractors to often use two inspectors (one certified and one trainee) on even the simplest inspections where one inspector could do the job. The increased costs will be borne by the contractor or passed on to the customer. In reality, this requirement and the associated costs could cause even fewer companies to invest in training because of the long payback time (up to 5 years) thus creating a more severe labor shortage as contractors resort to poaching certified inspectors from each other.

In addition to a shortage of certified technicians, our industry is suffering a shortage of qualified workers in general. This is particularly acute where jurisdictions have no alternative to NICET certification. There are a number of qualified inspectors, layout technicians, and others who simply struggle with the NICET format. I know solid experienced technicians who cannot pass the examination requirement for one or two required work elements (out of dozens) and as a result cannot obtain certification. NICET plans to rectify this somewhat with a new test format, but in the meantime, many qualified individuals will be forced out of an already inadequate work force. A number of jurisdictions have addressed this by using NICET as an option in lieu of some other measuring tool(s) such as a written exam or practical test administered by the jurisdiction or other entity. Having an alternative to NICET certification for a technician to demonstrate competency is something that I believe all jurisdictions should consider.

One of the more serious potential consequences concerning certification involves the inspection and testing of water based fire protection systems. NFPA 25 is the universally accepted standard covering the maintenance of sprinkler systems. It is adopted by many jurisdictions and is the basis for most of the requirements that are in effect throughout the industry. However, it is widely misinterpreted by contractors, jurisdictions, and owners. The scope of NFPA 25 is not intended to reveal design and installation deficiencies. It is a maintenance standard in which the main purpose is the elimination of system failures that occur from a lack of maintenance. However, when a system failure results in litigation it is a common tactic of plaintiffs to raise design and installation issues. Many contractors have long incorporated strict processes in performing inspections and tests to stay within the scope of NFPA 25. In fact, when design or installation issues are raised, contractors often point out that the technicians are not trained nor qualified to identify design and/or installations issues. It has been an effective defense against unwarranted liability.

NICET certification changes this. A certified inspector has demonstrated some level of competency in areas such as hazard identification, commodity classification, types and methods of storage, sprinkler area of coverage, proper use of sprinklers, and so forth. This should signal to the contractor that it is more important than ever to be very clear in proposals and agreements regarding the scope of services and to verify that the customer fully understands the proposed scope. However, the contractor must still be prepared for the challenges that will come with litigation and questions regarding the inspector’s “duty” to point out problems whether or not the issue is within the scope of the inspection or test.

Certification programs are here to stay. This is a good thing but the prudent contractor or manager must consider what these certifications mean for their business and how to recognize and address the possible negative consequences that result. Do not wait until it is too late.