Do You Have a Sprinkler System?

sprinkler system

Having a properly installed sprinkler system in your barn could save your horse’s life.

All too often, barn fires are spotted by passersby in the middle of the night, when the people who actually live on the property are asleep in their beds. By this time, tragically, the animals in the barn are usually already dead. All the owners can do is stand by and watch as the structure is devoured by flames and firefighters work to keep the blaze from spreading to other buildings.

Sprinkler Systems are a Must

This horrifying scenario is why I am a firm believer in having sprinkler systems installed in every facility where humans or animals live or work. Alerting systems alone cannot save your horse’s life if there is no one in the barn to start evacuation; even with the most advanced systems available today, too much time is lost. When the alarm is activated, it must first be relayed to the monitoring station, which in turn alerts the local fire department, which must then dispatch the assigned crews and apparatus out to your farm. In even that short time – maybe 15 minutes or less – your horses will already be dead from smoke inhalation and half the barn may have burned down.

It takes only a few minutes for horses to be overcome by the toxic smoke produced by burning objects, so one of the major benefits of having a sprinkler system is that it can extinguish the fire before enough toxic fumes can accumulate in the smoke to cause death.

“No building with a properly designed, installed and operating sprinkler system has ever been lost,” says First Responder Irv Lichtenstein, who has more than 40 years of experience in the fire service. “It is interesting to note that the worst high-rise fire in Philadelphia’s modern history was reportedly extinguished by fewer than ten sprinkler heads opening up when the fire finally reached a sprinklered floor. That was after it had killed three firefighters and destroyed about $150 million of the building that was not sprinklered.”

Wet and Dry Systems

There are two main types of automatic sprinkler systems in general use today:

1. Wet type sprinkler systems have water in their pipes all the time. A wax seal or fusible link (purposely made of a metal that deforms when heated) in the sprinkler head keeps the water from discharging unless heat generated by a fire melts the seal or deforms the link. Water is then dispersed by the sprinkler heads opened by the heat of the fire.

2. Dry type sprinkler systems are more useful in northern climates where water cannot be maintained in the pipes because of freezing temperatures. They therefore operate on a slightly different principle. Water is not maintained in the pipes, but in a 250- to 500-gallon tank pressurized with nitrogen gas kept at above-freezing temperatures. The water is held back by compressed air in the pipes, until the air is released by the opening of a sprinkler head.

Dry type systems are just as effective as wet systems. They do, however, cost more to install and maintain because they are more complex. Also, the pipes need to be completely drained after use to prevent corrosion. As well, there may be up to 60 seconds’ delay until water reaches the activated sprinkler head.

Don’t let that dissuade you from considering a dry type sprinkler system, though. Paul Sincaglia, PE, of Hughes Associates, Inc., one of the world’s leading fire protection engineering and code consulting firms, sent me a news story in June of 2007 about a fire in a barn near Philadelphia that was housing $25 million worth of horses. A cheap box fan hanging in a stall caught fire due to an overheated fan motor. The plastic melted, the burning fan motor fell off the unit into the straw on the floor, and a fire started. A sprinkler head from the dry system went off, putting the blaze out before the fire department arrived. One horse suffered a singed tail and a blister on the back of one leg. Along with some slight charring of a stall wall, the only other damage was to the straw on the floor.

Dispelling Sprinkler Myths

As the two examples above illustrate, sprinkler systems are effective suppression devices. And contrary to some commonly held notions, no person or animal has drowned under the spray nor panicked as a result of the shower. Only the sprinkler heads activated by heat from a fire will discharge water; all the others remain closed.

One argument against sprinklers is lack of water supply. However, a single sprinkler head discharges very little water (ten to 25 gallons per minute) compared to a fire hose (125 to 250 gallons per minute). A 1,000-gallon cistern and a fire pump can supply plenty of water for one or more activated sprinkler heads to either extinguish a fire or keep it in check until the fire department arrives.

Peace of Mind is Priceless

Finally, we come to the other popular argument against installing a new or retrofit sprinkler system – the cost involved. Recent costs for installing a sprinkler system in new construction ranges from $1 to $2 per square foot of sprinklered area. The average cost, as reported by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), is $1.35 per square foot. Retrofitting is more expensive, ranging from $2 to $7 per square foot of sprinklered area. This is because the installer must sometimes place pipes without disturbing finished interiors, such as in a house, historic structure, or office building. Since most barns are fairly “open”, however, the costs for retrofitting would be at the low end, perhaps even as low as installation for new construction.

Along with the tremendous emotional impact of a barn fire, consider the economic impact. For example, if your horse barn is occupied by ten show horses, each worth $10,000 or more, it would be extremely shortsighted to not protect your investment with a completely sprinklered structure. That’s not taking into account the cost of replacing the physical structure that almost certainly would be destroyed in a fire. Incidentally, insurance discounts on sprinklered structures are sometimes as high as 60%!

If you are planning to spend some extra dollars on amenities to make your barn a little more attractive, think safety first. By installing a sprinkler system, you will be buying tremendous peace of mind for yourself. And if you want to entice boarders, you’ll be offering them peace of mind when you tell them: “We have a sprinkler system in our barn to protect your horse’s life.”

Ensuring Adequate Water Supply

It is extremely important that a sprinkler system has an adequate year-round water supply. If municipal hydrants are available, there will be plenty of water, but in most rural or semi-rural areas this is not an option.

If you don’t have a municipal water supply, but have a pond on your property, installing a dry hydrant is a wise decision. A dry hydrant is a water delivery system that uses 6” or larger PVC pipe with a standard fire department connection. One end, with a strainer attached, is placed in a deep area of the pond that doesn’t freeze in winter. The land end has a fire department connection that allows a pumper to hook up to the hydrant and draw water from the pond. If you don’t have a pond, but are planning to have one constructed, install a dry hydrant at the same time.

In either case, consult your fire department about the best placement for the hydrant so it will be easily accessible. You might have to contact your state Department of Natural Resources or Soil Conservation Service for requirements, permits, or further information. If permits are required, don’t start work without them, and be sure to notify your utility companies before excavation begins.

Laurie Loveman is an author, fire department officer, and a member of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) technical committee on fire and life safety in animal housing facilities. She has a degree in fire and safety engineering technology from the University of Cincinnati and is a consultant on fire safety in equine facilities. With more than 40 years experience in the horse industry, Laurie has written many articles for equine and fire service publications, and her Firehouse Family novels, set in the 1930s, reflect her interest not just in horses, but on topics relevant to firefighting, such as stress, medical ethics and arson.