CODE & STANDARD REFERENCES
When are sprinklers required in existing buildings?
In this segment we’re going to cover when sprinklers are required in existing buildings.
Now, for more information on this, I would highly recommend Chris Campbell’s segments where he talks about what codes apply to existing buildings. There are two videos in the links below that break these questions out in a lot more detail, and they’re great segments.
When do we retrofit sprinklers in existing buildings?
BENEFITS OF SPRINKLERS
There are a lot of scenarios where sprinklers are retrofit into existing buildings. First, there’s major upside. We gain a major improvements to life safety and property protection. So, sometimes, a building owner may just want to retrofit fire sprinkler systems in their property.
That’s not entirely what we’re covering with this topic, though. It’s also unfortunately not the case most of the time. Retrofits for sprinkler systems can be difficult to accomplish and can impact existing architectural finishes; suffice to say, they can be expensive.
So that brings back our question, when are we required to retrofit sprinklers in existing buildings?
First, as Chris points out in his series, existing buildings fall into two categories:
Let’s start with case one, where we just have an existing building going about its normal activities.
Sprinklers could be required from several different directions.
One is that a building owner has an insurance inspection and receives a recommendation from their insurer that they upgrade their building with fire sprinklers. While not necessarily a “requirement” where someone is legally obligated to make the improvement, it nonetheless is a scenario where sprinkler retrofits occur. This could happen when a facility gets its regular review, increases in value, changes insurers, has some kind of loss event, or is otherwise under the microscope from the property insurer.
Sprinkler system improvements or retrofits from insurer recommendations are not an uncommon process. The building owner usually gets either a kickback in insurance premium savings, or avoids a major increase in insurance premium savings, which I could say “encourages” some action to be taken.
For buildings in normal operation, sprinklers could be required if there is a retrofit mandate for the area. One common one in US cities today is highrise sprinkler retrofit requirements. If a building is a certain height or number of stories, its written into law that it must be retrofit with a fire sprinkler system either with the next major renovation or by a specific date.
These usually have come about after major highrise tragedies when fire hits the news cycle and politicians look to make change.
NFPA 1, for example, has mandated that existing highrises be retrofit with automatic sprinklers since in the 1997 edition, and required this be completed within 12-months of adoption of that code.
These mandates vary city by city, with different rules and timelines for compliance.
THREAT TO BUILDING OCCUPANTS
For buildings in normal operation, sprinklers could be required where there is a fire or a discovery on the part of the authority having jurisdiction.
If a building was not in compliance with the building code that was adopted at the time the building was constructed, then most fire codes have code justification for requiring some change.
Also, if the AHJ discovers a clear danger to occupant safety, then the jurisdiction does have authority to require changes. One example of this in Section 106.2 of the International Building Code, or Section 102.1 of the International Fire Code.
CHANGE IN STORAGE
Thus far we’ve talked about introducing fire sprinkler systems where there was not one to begin with. But it could also be the case that either of these groups or events trigger an upgrade to an existing fire sprinkler system.
I had a project not too long ago where an insurer conducted their annual inspection and noticed a significant amount of expanded plastic storage. They were solid-piled foams stacked about 16-feet in height.
The insurer knew that plastics burn much more toxic, much quicker, and produces much more heat than ordinary combustibles, but they didn’t know the extent of how the original system was designed and what it could support today. The insurer recommended that the building owner bring in an engineer and compare the actual storage versus what the existing sprinkler system could handle.
There was a gap.
The original system was a Pipe Schedule sprinkler system designed for Ordinary Hazard. We reverse-engineered it and determined with the current water supply that it should effectively deliver about 0.22 gpm/sqft over a 2,500 sqft area.
For how the plastics were being stored, they needed a density about three times what they were able to achieve. Even if we’re looking at it from a “big picture”, that’s a big gap.
The insurer is looking at this as a potentially large risk. The local fire department could look at it with a similar vein; was the existing building legally permitted originally? Was there a limit to the type or height of storage it could handle?
If a sprinkler system was designed to handle 12-feet of storage, but has 18-feet? Well, there’s recourse. A Fire Marshal could cite the building and require that storage be lowered or that the system be modified.
That’s all for buildings undergoing their normal operation. What about a building that is undergoing change?
Let’s say we have a building that has a repair, an alteration, a change of occupancy, an addition, or is altogether relocated?
INTERNATIONAL EXISTING BUILDING CODE
In areas that adopt the International Code Council’s series of codes, the International Existing Building Code would apply. Here, the first step is to determine what type of change is being conducted. There are repairs, alterations with three distinct levels, change of occupancies, additions, and relocations of existing building.
We first would confirm what type of change the building has. That’s in Chapter 2, the definitions.
Once we have the correct category, we follow IEBC’s pathway for compliance. See more on Chris’ video below, but in general there are three compliance methods – the prescriptive compliance method (Chapter 5), the Work Area Compliance Method (Chapters 6-12) and the Performance Compliance Method (Chapter 13).
Now if the building is undergoing change and instead we’re under NFPA 101, then we first start with Chapter 43 that addresses building rehabilitation work. That’s going to cue us over to existing occupancy chapters, such as 13, 15, 17, etc out of NFPA 101.
In short, if we have an existing building that is undergoing change, there is actually a code path that applies to those changes. Many people in design don’t know that the International Existing Building Code (IEBC) even exists. It’s a good book. Easy to navigate and find when things are required and when they’re not. Does the IBC apply to my renovation? Maybe, maybe not. But the IEBC will guide you through that process.
If we’re in the NFPA line, a little more work to do. I’d recommend Chris’ videos to dig through the weeds and find the code path for your project.
So when are sprinklers required in existing buildings?
#1 Well, they could be recommended or mandated because there’s a clear risk to the building or to occupants. That could be driven by an insurer or an Authority Having Jurisdiction.
#2 There could be legislation that affects a building. One example is a sprinkler high-rise retrofit.
#3 Or, a change is happening with the building where sprinklers are required in part or all of a building in order to “meet code”.
I am Joe Meyer, this is MeyerFire University.
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Aaron Johnson, CFEI
Al Yakel, SET
Chris Campbell, PE
Chris Logan, CFPS, RSE
David Stacy, PE
Ed Henderson, PE
Joe Meyer, PE