An incredible 1 in 5 sprinkler system failures result from deficient inspection, testing and maintenance (ITM) procedures, notes a July 2017 National Fire Protection Association report, “U.S. Experience with Sprinklers.” Failure to maintain sprinkler systems causes 10 percent of documented failures; system damage is the cause for another 7 percent of failures ((https://bit.ly/3u3toID)).
ITM is critical to determine if end-of-life components will prevent a fire sprinkler system from operating during an emergency.
One example of failure to adequately perform ITM is a building with a dry pipe system installed where the piping was not verified to be free of corrosion during five-year inspections. Corrosion inside the pipe was able to completely occlude branch line piping, resulting in the failure of sprinklers to operate and, ultimately, a total loss.
The results can be tragic because buildings are designed with the intent of sprinkler systems working. Travel distance increases, storage height increases and increased commodity hazards can be allowed when sprinkler systems are present.
No matter the building status, whether filled to capacity or temporarily emptied due to a pandemic, ITM is absolutely essential to ensure sprinkler systems are healthy and functional at all times. However, when buildings are vacant and a pandemic restricts travel, creative ideas must be considered.
Two such creative ideas, remote ITM and automated ITM, have arrived. Let’s explore each of these innovations that, even with some additional upfront costs, have the potential to reduce life cycle costs to building owners.
Building owners can benefit from implementing remote ITM. Reducing travel to sites reduces exposure to coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 or whatever new pathogen may develop in the future. Additionally, reducing inspection time on-site reduces owner costs, allowing limited staff and budgets to stretch a bit farther.
Local building departments can realize the same benefits. Reducing travel has the added benefit of reducing the need for truck travel, reducing emissions and carbon footprint.
When the worldwide pandemic was announced in 2020, NFPA socialized the many resources available for remote video inspections (RVI). One comprehensive resource is the NFPA’s Building Code Development Committee’s white paper (https://bit.ly/3e15Gao), “Conducting Remote Video Inspections.” Let’s take a closer look.
First, set clear expectations for RVI. Which inspections are appropriate for RVI? Not all facilities or ITM situations are the same. Is it safe to conduct the RVI at the scheduled time? Perhaps weather or site safety conditions will impact that decision. What administrative provisions are required? Maybe special applications or fees are required.
Approval of the process from the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) is a key component of RVI success. What does a successful RVI look like? Although NFPA defines minimum requirements for ITM, owners, insurers, and AHJs may have additional requirements.
Second, determine who will perform the on-site work: the building owner, a subcontracted third party, or someone else? Regardless, all parties should be identified and approved ahead of time, then confirmed on-site.
Third, select the technology used for remote video inspection. Consider the additional technical requirements needed for live interaction. Is internet required and is the connection stable? Although the technology is continuously improving, some buildings behave like Faraday cages, interrupting the connection.
What types of tech are needed? Smartphones and tablets combined with video conferencing software, such as Zoom, are readily available. All parties must be set up with the proper software.
Fourth, verify that the RVI is being conducted at the proper location. The on-site technician should validate that he is at the correct specific location within the facility. For example, many riser rooms, valves and pumps in large facilities look similar. Be sure you’re inspecting the right equipment.
One suggestion is to turn on GPS location on the RVI device and use a “find my device” application. For recorded RVI, most devices automatically encode GPS metadata to photos and videos. Ensure privacy settings are appropriately enabled before starting the RVI.
Finally, determine and document the specific inspection information to be gathered. On-site personnel may lack technical expertise. It’s important to communicate about what’s being observed and what information must be obtained and documented. The remote observer must resolve all uncertainties by asking questions and directing the on-site technician.
In this author’s experience, conducting live video inspections with two-way communication is more time-effective and yields more thorough results than asynchronous reviews. However, site conditions or local AHJ requirements may mandate recorded RVI. For example, poor Internet connectivity may inhibit synchronous communication, or perhaps an AHJ wants to maintain photos or video records.
One way to address a lack of on-site expertise is to express your inner movie director and script the visit for on-site personnel to follow. In the script, list every video shot required of every component to be observed. Include detailed direction where necessary.
For example, wide photo or video shots are helpful to understand the overall condition of components, while tight shots — up-close photos and videos — can augment the understanding with additional detail and specificity.
Traditional on-site inspections typically generate pages of completed checklists, forms and worksheets. ITM checklists preformatted for the various editions of NFPA 25 are widely available on multiple fire protection-focused websites.
Due to the proliferation of electronic tablets such as the iPad and the Galaxy Tab over the past 10 years, electronic checklists are widely used. A wide variety of software formats are available, from the basic (e.g., PDF editor, Excel spreadsheet, Google Forms and SurveyMonkey surveys) to the highly specialized cloud-based tools (e.g., iAuditor, PlanGrid and Procore).
My firm successfully surveyed thousands of facilities using tablets and cloud-based software since 2011, saving a forest-full of trees through reduced paper generation. Customized ITM surveys reduced labor costs by cutting the survey preparation and documentation time by 75 percent.
Most importantly, by using cloud-based ITM documentation, a remote inspector may complete forms from anywhere in the world and generate a report (in virtually any form) for the on-site inspector to file locally.
The 2017 edition of NFPA 25 introduced the fire protection community to the 21st century by codifying requirements for automated inspection, testing and maintenance.
Although on-site human inspectors will likely be necessary well into the future, automation has made fully automated ITM possible for some components most of the time. NFPA 25 does require automated test equipment that flows water to be visually discharged at least once every three years. This is consistent with existing language for recirculated water during pump tests. Remote visual observation may be an acceptable alternative to visual observation.
Additionally, on-site personnel — not necessarily trained fire protection technicians — shall observe the test and intervene if continued testing would result in injury or property damage.
Most importantly, the standard states that automated tests shall (my emphasis) be permitted. Local AHJs may not require physical ITM when components listed for automated ITM are tested according to the NFPA 25 standards.
The technical committee identified several components suitable for automated testing, including water flow alarm devices; transducers; temperature sensors; automatic and remotely operated valves, including motorized valves; and solenoids.
NFPA 25 requires most automated test equipment to be listed for the purpose of the test being conducted. There are exceptions to this rule. Listing is not necessary for components not subject to system pressure and not integral to the system's operation.
One example of a listed automated component is a flow switch using a small motor and software to simulate the flow of water. The flow switch uses a small engine to hold the paddle stem assembly in the “tripped” position until the retard time expires, then release to the original position. This ensures that the paddle assembly is always functional in the event of a fire.
Automated tests shall produce the same action required by NFPA 25 to test a device. This requirement means the entire device will be tested, not just an indicator or signal-producing portion of a component.
Failure of the testing equipment shall not impair the system's operation unless indicated by a supervisory signal in accordance with NFPA 72. Additionally, the component shall initiate an audible supervisory signal. These notifications are important because otherwise, a system impairment could go unreported.
Automated ITM changes in NFPA 25 have resulted in commensurate changes in installation standards for sprinkler systems, fire pumps and standpipes. For example, definitions and sections were added to the 2019 edition of NFPA 13 Chapters 3, 16 and 28, reflecting the modifications to NFPA 25. For example, most sections from NFPA 25 Section 4.6.6 are copied into NFPA 13 Section 28.3.
Two recent changes to NFPA 25, remote ITM and automated ITM, allow building owners more flexibility to conduct inspection, testing and maintenance. Several newer technologies can be selected to take advantage of the new standard sections. Performing ITM is a key factor in ensuring the sprinkler system components are always operational and ready to protect the building.