In my regular code calls I used to include a specific question on the use of clean agent systems in server rooms.
Building Owners & Sprinklers
Many building owners provide clean agent systems to extinguish fires in high-value content areas, such as server rooms, data centers, archival storage, and many other applications.
When the owners voluntarily pony-up for extra protection in these areas, they often ask whether sprinklers have to be installed in those spaces at all.
My Code Call Question
On my code calls, my question would go something like: “does your jurisdiction require sprinklers to be installed in rooms which are protected by a clean agent system?”
I would get a mixed response. Some jurisdictions considered clean agent systems to be an equivalent for sprinkler protection, others would not.
A couple years after asking this question on every applicable project I had a fire marshal shoot me straight.
“If you don’t have sprinklers in the room, you don’t have a fully-sprinklered building. Check the IBC.”
This was news to me. I was under the impression that use of clean agent systems could be used as a substitute for fire sprinklers and still be effectively “fully-sprinklered”.
Back to the Book
There is a path for this approach – the International Building Code (2018) Section 904.2 states that:
“Automatic fire-extinguishing systems (ie: clean agent) installed as an alternative to the required automatic sprinkler systems of Section 903 shall be approved by the fire code official.”
This was the foundation on which I had been asking the question.
The big kicker was the code section just a paragraph later:
“904.2.1 Restriction on using automatic sprinkler system exceptions or reductions. Automatic fire-extinguishing systems shall not be considered alternatives for the purposes of exceptions or reductions allowed for automatic sprinkler systems or by other requirements of this code.”
Outside of the lawyer-phrasing, this section simply states “no sprinklers in the room – no sprinkler reductions or exceptions for your building.”
The commentary by the International Code Council goes further, stating that while the authority has the ability to approve alternative systems in lieu of sprinklers, doing so invalidates the “fully-sprinklered” status of a building.
Why Does this Matter?
Why is this important? There is a long list of code kickbacks that sprinklers offer a building.
A couple months ago I diagramed a cheatsheet for all of the major code benefits a “fully-sprinklered” NFPA 13 fire sprinkler system offers. You can download it free here.
Code benefits include allowable building heights, building areas, number of stories, egress benefits, passive rating reductions, Draftstopping reductions, fire alarm reductions, and a handful of other benefits.
I realized after that code call that the question affected well more than just my isolated “fire sprinkler” silo. Omitting sprinklers in just one server room would have code implications throughout the complex.
Now, should building owners ask about omitting in these rooms we often look at other strategies – such as concealed sidewall sprinklers, use of dry sprinklers, drip pans, use of pre-action systems, or piping without joints and heavy-duty cages. Some of these solutions can be painless, without great cost and satisfy code as well.
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Joseph Meyer, PE, is a Fire Protection Engineer in St. Louis, Missouri. See bio on About page.