I've occasionally run into predicaments on projects that put me in a tough position.
A couple weeks ago as part of a rural project in a small town outside of Memphis I was helping coordinate a flow test between a hired sprinkler contractor and the water utility.
I had initially asked both the fire and water department if they conducted tests or had interest in witnessing, asked for sprinkler contractor recommendations, and then called the nearest sprinkler outfit I could find (which happened to be an hour and a half drive away). They agreed to run a flow test for $500. I gave parameters on which hydrants I felt we needed tested and gave the go-ahead.
Results from the test were very poor. A static of 65 psi dropped to 40 at only 580 gpm, with the extrapolated curve showing a maximum capacity of around 800 gpm at 20 psi.
Flow test results are dependent upon quality visual readings and calibrated equipment.
Based on the intent of the project with significant storage capacity (think ESFR), we were looking at both a pump and a tank to supplement both pressure and flow.
The hiccup came when I caught word from the water department who told the general contractor (our client) that the sprinkler company used a gauge that didn't zero out and the water department suspected was not calibrated. Based on past history the water department expected better flow in the area (at least), and were surprised that the flow had been so low.
Now to the minor dilemma - we need the test re-run (especially if there's water storage tank implications) - so does that mean having the same sprinkler contractor run the test again? The water department, after talking the situation with them, wasn't a big fan. Do I find another sprinkler contractor, and have to eat the original $500? Do I play the game that many general contractors would run, and not pay the $500?
Pressure gauges can become less calibrated over time - and the further they get from true readings
the less reliable the resulting data becomes.
I'm not the kind of person that generally makes a phone call without some kind of directive or question in mind, but I called the contractor and just laid out what I had heard and asked how they wanted to handle it. Fortunately, the sales manager was extremely helpful and offered to re-run the test at no additional charge (despite the one-way 1.5 hour drive to the site) with a new set of gauges.
I'll get the results this week or next, and I suspect that with even slightly better flow information there could be big impacts on the sizing of water storage.
I was on the receiving end of generosity and being well-served in this case, and I am very thankful for it.
Being in business affords us the opportunity to make many decisions and serve other people. One of my favorite aspects of running a small team is having the opportunity to serve people very well and own our mistakes. Clients don't always expect perfection, but a full-fledged genuine effort to serve in a client's best interest usually results in successful projects and happy clients.
I don't expect every flow test, every installation, or every encounter to be perfect - but having people who are willing to own a mistake and take steps to correct it are the type of people I enjoy working with.
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I started working with fire suppression systems as a bid/spec designer who did both upfront "full-design" as well as "performance-spec" or "design/build" criteria. I'll save frustrations and pet-peeves with this approach for a later time.
While I still help architects put those packages together, several years ago I also began helping contractors with permit design, hydraulic calculations, installation detailing, and stocklisting. To say that this foray into seeing the other side of the industry is eye-opening would be an understatement. I've learned so much and perhaps only now realize how much I still have to learn.
Here's my top takeaways from pulling back the curtain and working with Oz:
1. Details Are Critical
Probably the biggest adjustment when working on installation drawings as opposed to an upfront 'full-design' is that each and every detail is critical. The goal becomes less of "is this a code-compliant, efficient design?" and rather becomes "is this a code-compliant, most efficient design?"
What happens when a pipe is fabricated to exact lengths and ends up overlapping with a steel beam by 1/2-inch? Steel beam wins. My buddy in the field now has add a spool piece or re-cut pipe.
What happens when you accidentally order unions instead of couplings? You get a phone call.
2. It's Just Theory Until Someone Has to Do It
In some ways, living on the 'engineering' side of a project and not the contracting end is dabbling in theory. Even if pipe, fittings and equipment are all shown on bid documents, there's still someone on the back-end putting together installation drawings and a contractor that's looking at it before it gets installed.
When you're the guy on the back-end, it's no longer theory. A dimension from a pipe to structure is where it's supposed to go in the field. My point is, my fantasy-world of someone else correcting my schematic layout before it gets installed is no longer there.
How many components are shown here? I used to see this as a pipe with a lateral seismic brace. After designing installation drawings and stocklisting, I see at least four assemblies with a wide range of options, listings, and details.
3. Preferences Vary Widely
Prefer flex drops to hard pipe? What about grooved & welded branchlines over threaded? Want Viking, Vic, Tyco, Reliable, or Globe sprinklers? What about hanger attachments? Preferences vary widely, and while all of the above are code compliant, there is a ton of variation in how different people prefer to purchase and install a system.
4. Ain't Nobody Got Time for This
Think architects have tight deadlines? When a subcontractor has a contract held out for long periods of time, only to finally be released for work and in the next breadth asked when submittals will be complete - there's a time crunch.
Not all projects designs are under tight timelines and if contracts are released in good time sometimes there's a decent amount of breathing room. But in many cases, my clients need turnarounds as soon as possible.
5. Think Differently
Once our drawings were unstrapped from the titleblock and drawing convention (scale, fonts, numbering) typically dictated by the architect - a world of possibility has opened up with flexibility on the documents.
Want to know why many shop drawings have details thrown on the same sheet as the plan? It's because the installer may only be carrying that sheet when he or she installs that area.
We made the leap a couple years ago to do 100% BIM, whether the job required it or not. In doing so, there's been many opportunities to approach how we construct our drawings differently. When everything is modeled, section cuts become very easy. Want isometrics for risers and complex areas? Done.
Why is 1/8-inch scale so prevalent in the shop drawing world? It's about the smallest scale we can do to see everything on a sheet. Traditionally, drafting was labor intensive and each sheet represented a real cost incurred to the designer and thereby the building owner. This resulted in reducing the number of sheets whenever possible.
Now, with computer drafting and even more-so in the 3-D world of BIM, scale is almost irrelevant. I find the notion of charging clients by the sheet almost funny now. My life becomes so much easier using 1/4-inch scale - drawings are cleaner, I can show two-line pipe and fittings, annotations take far less time to clean up, and I've yet to have a complaint from an installer concerning the larger scale.
In talking to software developers at HydraTEC there's a real sense that BIM will change how we construct drawings. When there's little to zero extra effort to show sections, isometrics, or renderings, then the question becomes less about how much time it takes to show extra detail and instead what presentation offers the best explanation of what we're trying to indicate. It's a really exciting place to be when you're at that point.
Taking the leap into 100% BIM (building information modeling) on every job has been a challenge, yet now pays off in ways I would have never anticipated with better-orchestrated drawings and flexibility in overall presentation
6. Lack of Information & Consideration
Probably my most frustrating lesson is that with many 'design-build' jobs that don't incorporate an engineer tasked with fire protection, there is zero consideration to where fire sprinkler systems and components are going to be installed.
I've had many projects put out to bid that don't even state whether a building is going to have an NFPA 13 system, much less space allocated for the sprinkler riser on an exterior wall.
For a functional bid, there's a few important details I think would help contractors compare apples-to-apples, and that's for another time but at a minimum should include (1) applicable code, (2) coordinated service entry, (3) flow test information where calculations are needed, (4) pipe specification, and perhaps (5) hazard criteria.
7. Boy There's A Lot to Learn
Years ago I was told it takes a solid 6-8 years or so of work in this industry before you gain a foothold in understanding the breadth of the work involved. Malcolm Gladwell, author of the Best-Seller "Outliers", discusses the now famous 10,000-hour rule whereby in order to truly be an expert in a topic, one must amass 10,000 hours of quality experience in that arena.
While I hold both of those considerations to be somewhat valid, I also realize after amassing those totals that I still have so, so much to learn in this industry. Please don't think that just because I record and share my thoughts here that I'm in any way more capable or more of an expert in this space than you are or can be.
I was on a jobsite yesterday getting installer feedback on one of my latest projects. While walking the job, we discussed at least a dozen different areas that the design could be improved to benefit the installer, allow for flexibility in field adjustments, and ways to route pipe that doesn't upset the other trades. The entire discussion didn't even touch code - there were no code issues - rather it was all about improving design technique for future projects.
My joy in sharing this material as someone who is not a refined expert, a Fellow SFPE, or the committee chairman of a major standard is that I can cover the small tips and nuances that we naturally gather and learn along the way. There's so much in the day-to-day where just starting the discussion has value.
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A couple years ago I led a university engineering course covering Fire Protection Engineering.
While the students consisted of both undergraduates and a couple graduate students, we had one working professional audit the course whom I had worked with on several projects. He was a respected local plan reviewer who had nearly three decades of fire service and review experience. We carpooled to campus before and after each class and had great discussions on the profession, the course, and nuances of private versus public experiences.
One week he told me that he was very surprised by the class.
Not by the content, but that the engineering students didn’t just already know the concepts we were teaching.
It wasn’t that he thought the group wasn’t intelligent, he just always carried the premise that engineers knew all the important concepts that non-engineers don't. The realization he had after a few weeks was that each student was starting from scratch just as he had done years ago.
The concept surprised me.
While there exists a small handful of fire protection programs in the U.S., the far majority of people who work in and around the industry do not have formal degrees in fire protection. Even for those people, the most important knowledge gained is learned on the job.
The premise drives at the point that the greatest benefit to education, at least in engineering, is gathering the ability to think critically and establish a platform for lifetime learning and growth. Recent graduates, even out of the best programs, are nowhere near the same people they become 5, 10, or 15 years later.
Education isn't about the content, it's learning how to learn.
Those that don't embrace lifelong learning get passed by those who do. Degrees (and education) matter, but a degree in fire protection and/or engineering does not inherently translate to knowledge or a successful career.
There is so much great information out there; much of which is more accessible now than ever before.
Just about everything I gained during an architectural engineering undergraduate program concerning fire protection was in self-study or through internship experience.
Would an architectural engineering program have set me up for long-term success in fire protection? Absolutely; I have no doubt it would have. The many people I’ve encountered from that program (University of Kansas Alumni) or other nearby engineering programs have already proven that it doesn’t take a fire protection degree to do extremely well in this industry.
Conversely, I later studied Fire Protection through the University of Maryland a Master of Engineering graduate program. Was is all that it was cracked up to be? In my opinion: yes and more. I learned to think about fire protection as a complete entity and not just within the context of fire alarm and fire sprinklers. I developed roots in performance-based design, began to consider special challenges of nuclear power generation or marine suppression systems, and experienced a depth in content that I had not known existed.
Those two programs have impacted my life dramatically. Yet, the most important takeaway I have from each of those experiences is the ability think critically and have a fanatical willingness to continue learning.
I read recently that more content is published online in every two days than had been created in all of human history through the twentieth century. There is so much great content in fire protection that exists in printed books, in reports, in training programs, in committee discussions, or is between the ears of that colleague in the office.
Knowledge is not limited to formal education – and formal education is not a pre-requisite to be a contributing and success story in this industry.
While it might be easy for engineering graduates to say that education isn’t critical to success, I readily believe that the most important and productive learning we can gather is in non-stop reading and intentional question asking.
There is so much to learn.
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If you haven't felt that tinge of anxiousness in the air, then you probably aren't spending time near someone taking the 2017 PE Exam.
This Friday over 200 professionals throughout the world will sit for the eight-hour Fire Protection P.E. Exam. It's a recognized mark of competency and for those taking the exam, a major milestone in his or her career.
In May of this year we published the 2017 MeyerFire PE Prep Guide, which introduced over 100 new questions, additional tips and references, and major revisions to the 2016 Guide. It was nothing short of a monstrous effort to compile the new 376-page volume. In addition, in June we launched a 20-week Weekly Exam Series in an effort to provide more practice while simulating actual exam conditions. This was joined by our continued free Daily PE Problems throughout the summer.
While this year was a big step up in involvement, it also was a very positive experience. We have had probably our most involved group of test takers to date, both in the number of questions posed, comments on the daily problems, and lively discussions in the PE Prep Facebook Group. A handful of last year's examinees provided real-time feedback in the Facebook discussions and a couple helped us compile new daily problems for this year.
There have been some learning curves on my end that cropped up this summer - namely needing better editing on my part as we had (in my opinion) too many errata updates to the 376-page guide. We will be incorporating all of those updates in the 2018 Guide. Another improvement I'm wanting for 2018 is to open up my availability late in the fall (September & October) better one-on-one help. I'll be exploring ways to better share and discuss content between now and next summer in that regard.
This summer I have again been impressed by how hard and thorough so many test takers are in their preparation. We've had some of the most in-depth content discussions around prep material of any summer to date. It seems as though the more problems and content we're able to distribute, the more discussion and depth everyone is able to soak up. It's certainly a good thing from a learning perspective.
For those taking the exam this week, remember that each year there's always some subject that appears completely out of nowhere. Just remember that those are just as surprising to everyone else taking the exam, and, some of those questions may not even be scored but rather trial questions for future exams. Do your best and forget the rest.
For those not taking the exam but know someone that is, give him or her a hug. Or don't, because that creeps people out - but do encourage beforehand and help celebrate with them afterwards. It's a big effort and for many an anxious time, but can be just as rewarding as well.
I grabbed something different this week and revisited the classic Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. If you have not read the short fiction, it is centered around Guy Montag, a fireman in the near future who ignites rather than fight fires.
His dystopian world is governed by invasive mass media and a real fear for independent ideas and thought. People have little time or regard for each other or any thirst for knowledge, rather preferring information that are “digest of digests”, compoundings of simple summaries so vanilla and basic as to not offend any for feeling unintelligent.
While we don’t live in the exact environment Bradbury describes, there are parallels to our current day. Ever passed someone with a cell phone that wouldn’t recognize your existence? Ever get the impression like mass media is invasive, or a source of constant noise?
Fire in the novel is the tool by which this dystopian society denounces and discredits individual thought, effectively censoring anything that could be considered contrary to public needs. The title gets its name from the autoignition temperature of a book (although we know now that books self-ignite at ranges of temperatures which are dependent upon the materials).
Besides using fire as a theme throughout the novel to describe the pains of censorship, I find the biggest parallel to our industry is concept of individual knowledge growth. Knowledge or true independent thought cannot be gained simply by asking "how". Rather, it can be far more important to ask "why?".
We live by standards. In fire protection, especially in the United States, we are constantly in the realm of prescriptive code requirements whose rules we commit to memory and treat in high regard.
But why are those rules in place? It is not enough to simply know how plans are arranged, systems are installed, or how inspections are conducted. Our value as an expert is all about understanding the why, or the importance and implications behind the rules.
What is the good of experience if you've never stopped to ask why?
I have experienced several times in group or teaching environments where where learners want to know the how but not the why. How to lay out sprinklers with a given obstruction? How to layout fire alarm appliances for a movie theater?
How to orient branch piping for a dry system in a parking garage?
As a teacher it can be easy to deliver the how and provide a solution. But how much is lost in the opportunity to learn and teach in that moment? We fail our understudies if we don't provide ample reasoning as to why decisions are made or solutions are suggested. Our goal is to develop knowledgeable thought leaders, not machines that duplicate past work.
As a learner it can be all too easy and tempting to find short term solutions without digging deeper. In the design and construction industries, time can be our most valuable asset which does not lend itself to long duration of self study.
In order to make our experience translate to wisdom, we must ask why.
Good engineering judgement, often related to experience (but not necessarily a guarantee from it) is built upon a constant thirst for learning and growth. That thirst may be what brought you here.
I won’t even pretend to say that I’ve captured the why behind such a deep and varied engineering discipline like fire protection. It will be many years and many challenges before I will begin to scrape the surface of understanding much of the why behind our profession.
But I will make the most of that journey by asking why.
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Joseph Meyer, PE, is a Fire Protection Engineer in St. Louis, Missouri. See bio on About page.