Are Sprinklers required in electrical rooms?
In our last segment, we talked about routing pipe near electrical equipment. But what about the requirements for sprinklers themselves?
When are they even required in electrical rooms?
Today we’re looking specifically at this requirement for including sprinklers in electrical rooms.
WHY NOT WATER?
Let’s first highlight the elephant in the room. There are many viewpoints and opinions on the topic. Starting with putting water on electrically-charged equipment poses problems for responding fire fighters who may be exposed to the electric shock potential.
We know, fundamentally, that electricity and water don’t mix because water is electrically conductive, and spraying water or flooding a space with live electrical equipment can carry that energy through the water. That’s typically the reasoning and the argument against providing sprinklers in electrical rooms.
Besides the risk to first-responders, water could also cause additional damage to electrical equipment itself. That’s the biggest concern for building owners when we talk about server rooms, data centers, and areas with sensitive electronic equipment.
The general argument for protection in electrical rooms concerns how fire sprinkler systems are designed to operate.
They are intended to limit fire growth, and suppress a fire within its room of origin. Fire suppression systems are designed to attack the fire when the fire is small; when it is in its early growth stages. There is less heat created, the temperatures in the compartment are lower, and the heat release rate is far less than what it would be if the fire grew.
If sprinkler protection is not provided in any given compartment, then it’s possible that a fire could grow substantially before it works out of the room and is now a much larger hazard for the sprinkler system to fight.
In essence, the argument for having sprinkler protection within an electrical room is that the fire can grow and be much harder to fight when it grows beyond that electrical room.
In code, this concept is engrained in the concept of a “fully-sprinklered building”.
We hear the term all the time about “fully-sprinklered”. Why does that matter?
It’s this same concept: a fire sprinkler system is designed to suppress a fire when it is small.
It’s not designed to fight a fire after it’s engulfed half of a building.
For one – this would need far more water than what we would usually provide.
Two – if building structure is compromised – then there’s a high probability that the structure supporting our systems will fail and cause major breaks in the suppression system. With main breaks – water will not travel to the fire any longer. It just goes to the path of least resistance. So failure in structure results in failure of the suppression system.
So most modern building codes say that if we are to provide a sprinkler system for a building, then it’s going to need to be “fully-sprinklered”. Now things get a little more nuanced than that, but in the big-picture, if we protect a building, then we want all of the spaces with hazards to be addressed so that a fire can be suppressed.
ELECTRICAL ROOM DEFINITION
So back to our question at hand – when are sprinklers required in electrical rooms?
Let’s look at what constitutes an “electrical room”.
This does not mean a telecom closet, data room, IT equipment, or other rooms housing items like that.
When we are referring to “electrical equipment rooms” we are talking about dedicated rooms with energized equipment where the disconnect is located within the same room or that the power cannot be shutoff to the power supply, like switchgear rooms or transformer rooms.
Prior to the 1994 edition of NFPA 13, important electrical equipment was required to have hoods (or shields) comprised of non-combustible construction to prevent direct contact by sprinkler discharge. All electrical rooms were required to be sprinkler protected.
Beginning with the 1994 edition, NFPA 13 introduced language to address concerns for firefighter safety and equipment damage. Sprinklers could be omitted in electrical rooms where the room contains dry-type equipment (no oils), is dedicated to electrical equipment only, is fire-resistant to reduce fire spread, and the room has no storage hazard.
In the 2016 Edition, the requirement for equipment hoods or shields was removed to direct it under the scope of NFPA 70. We talked about this article within NFPA 70 in our last segment.
Just in the 2019 Edition new text was introduced such that no storage is permitted (non-combustible storage had been allowed) and liquid-type K-class (less flammable, non-spreading fluids) would be allowed.
REQUIREMENTS FROM NFPA 13
We get our guidance today based on these latest updates.
NFPA 13 (2022 edition) states in section 9.1.1 that the requirements for sprinklers shall be based on the principle that sprinklers shall be installed throughout the premise. However, sprinklers may be permitted to be omitted from specific areas defined by NFPA 13.
NFPA 13 section 9.2.6 states that sprinklers may be omitted from Electrical Equipment Rooms where all of the following conditions are met:
If these four conditions are not met in its entirety, then sprinklers are required to be installed in electrical rooms. That’s the guidance NFPA 13 gives us.
We then should think about routing pipe around equipment, like we talked about in our last video, and move on from there.
REQUIREMENTS FROM THE IBC
Though many jurisdictions adopt the NFPA 13 standard, many also adopt the International Building Code in the United States. If you are under the NFPA 5000 code, then the requirements fall back to the NFPA 13 interpretation, but for the rest of us let’s look at the International Building Code, or IBC.
The IBC actually weighs in on exactly this topic.
The 2021 IBC section 903.2 states that sprinklers can only be omitted in spaces or areas in telecommunications buildings used exclusively for telecommunications equipment, associated electrical power distribution equipment, batteries and standby engines, provided that those spaces or areas are equipped throughout with an automatic smoke detection system in accordance with Section 907.2 (the fire alarm and detection section) and are separated from the remainder of the building by not less than 1-hour fire barriers constructed in accordance with Section 707 (the fire barriers section) or not less than 2-hour horizontal assemblies in accordance with Section 711 (the floor and roof assemblies section), or both.
Further into the 2021 IBC in section 903.3.1.1.1 it goes on to state exempt locations. It says automatic sprinklers shall not be required in the following rooms or areas where such rooms or areas are protected with an approved automatic fire detection system in accordance with Section 907.2 that will respond to visible or invisible particles of combustion. Sprinklers shall not be omitted from a room merely because it is damp, of fire-resistance-rated construction or contains electrical equipment.
This is an important point the IBC makes right here, and might be easy to overlook. The IBC here says you can’t forgo sprinklers “merely because it is damp, of fire-resistance-rated construction, or contains electrical equipment.” Just because we don’t want water and electricity to mix doesn’t mean we instantly can remove sprinklers. In essence – the IBC code committees have looked in and weighed in on exactly the point we’re discussing today.
So where can sprinklers be omitted, in the IBC? Well we have a list of six locations where the IBC allows sprinkler omission, and the third includes:
3. Generator and transformer rooms separated from the remainder of the building by walls and floor/ceiling assemblies having a fire-resistance rating of not less than 2 hours.
These rooms must have an approved automatic fire detection system.
According to IBC commentary, buildings with sprinklers omitted in one of the sections allowed by the IBC would still be considered fully-sprinklered throughout and in compliance with the code and NFPA 13.
That’s the important consideration we talked about earlier.
IBC & NFPA 13
Combined, both the IBC and NFPA 13 require electrical rooms to be protected unless the prescriptive alternative option is followed.
As NFPA 13 commentary outlines, sprinkler systems have been successfully installed in rooms containing electrical equipment for over 100 years with no documented instances of a problem. While still seemingly controversial, most projects designed today include sprinkler-protected electrical rooms.
In North America, it’s far more common to sprinkler electrical rooms than not.
Are sprinklers required in electrical rooms?
In general, yes, sprinklers in a fully protected building require sprinklers in electrical rooms. It is far more common to sprinkler electrical rooms than not.
However, there are exceptions that require a trade-off of levels of protection if sprinklers are omitted.
An electrical room would need to be enclosed by 2-hour fire resistant rated construction, including any structure that supports these fire barriers and floor/ceiling assemblies, have no storage, be limited in the types of electrical equipment, and have approved automatic detection.
Many retrofit projects will make omission very difficult to meet these requirements due to the existing conditions of the room.
In new construction this coordination can be made easier than in existing buildings, but also make sure you get the Owner’s and the Fire Code Official’s buy-in before simply eliminating sprinklers because the Owner may have their own standards that exceed code minimum or the Fire Code Official may have input on this topic.
In our next segment in this series on electrical coordination, we’re going to look at how we plan and coordinate our largest electrical load in a building, which is power for fire pumps.
I’m Ben Brooks, this is MeyerFire University.
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