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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Joseph Meyer, PE, owns/operates his own Fire Protection Engineering practice in St. Louis, Missouri. See bio on About page.