A Dialogue About Sprinkler Systems

     As I mentioned earlier, there is much we can learn from folks with different viewpoints—in this case, it’s about sprinkler systems. Several years ago, in a Google group, a thread began about sprinkler systems that brought forth a barrage of pro and con responses. For clarity’s sake, I’ve distilled some of the messages into a more coherent form than the originals. I call what follows a “Dialogue with a DA (devil’s advocate),” who, by the way, appears to have some knowledge of sprinkler systems even if he wouldn’t install one.

Message 1:  This thread began with a comment by Jack (all names have been changed to keep from embarrassing anyone) in response to a discussion of arson. Jack said, “Rather than adding on yet another law against arson (specific to horses), I think a more productive law (were one a litigious sort) would be to require sprinklers in all commercial buildings, even if the commerce centers around horses.”

Message 2 from our DA: You think it would be productive to force us and thousands of other small business owners out of business, do you?

Message 3 from Susan:  How well do you think the sprinklers would work in the winter, anyway? The fire would have to be pretty far along to thaw the pipes.

Message 4 from our DA: Surely there aren’t people out there keeping horses in unheated barns! Dry pressurized systems work in unheated buildings. Of course, they are even more insanely expensive than ordinary sprinklers…

Message 5 from David: I’d wonder if such devices would be any less lethal for the occupants of the stable…it would be an even more expensive proposition to make the sprinkler system douse individual areas (wouldn’t it be set up as “all or none?”), and that which can suffocate a fire would necessarily affect horses as well…and the dry chemical would probably cause severe respiratory distress as well as eye damage. Sounds like the cure would be nearly as bad as the problem in the first place.
Better scenario: have a groom living nearby, check the fire alarms to make sure they function on at least a monthly basis. The groom could presumably call the fire department and at least “start” to rescue the animals.

Message 6 from our DA: No. Each sprinkler head is independent. You misunderstand. Dry pressurized sprinklers use water. The above-ground pipe is filled with dry gas. When a sprinkler head is set off by a fire the gas escapes and allows the system to fill with water which then sprays out of the sprinkler head in the usual way. Of course, then all the pipe is filled with water which freezes and ruptures the pipe…

Message 7 from David: Ahh, thanks for clarifying. I was more familiar with the “dry” pressurized fire suppression system that was in the rare books collection/manuscript room at the campus library (they made a big deal about how careful they are with the ancient books, and how they protect the collection)…since water would irreparably damage the collection, it used either carbon dioxide or powdered chemical to smother the fire, rather than douse it. The system you describe makes much more sense (albeit quite expensive, still). Of course, it doesn’t matter much if the pipes freeze once they do their job, and it would seem to be a small matter to hook up a compressor at the bleeder port and blow the water out.
Is the whole system pressurized at all times, though? Or is there just a control vault below freezeline that opens a valve to release water into the system as necessary? Sounds interesting, to say the least. But still not as good as minimizing risks, having all wiring encased in conduit and installed up to electrical code, staking idiots with the audacity to light up smokes anywhere near the barn, to an anthill with the most vicious fire ants (or at least posting signs to that effect, and make folks believe you’d actually do it), regularly inspecting heaters and electrical devices, and assuring that the hay storage area is well vented. I wonder how obliging most fire marshals would be to head out to stables and help identify risks. That would see to be a worthwhile risk prevention measure, as they know well where the greatest risks lie.

Message 8 from Jack, who jumps back in with a reply to our DA’s comment about forcing small business owners out of business: I’m sorry. I didn’t realize there were still any farms outside of Amish country that didn’t have running water plumbed to the barn—certainly not any commercially viable ones. Isn’t it a lot more expensive to hand-carry all that water? Seems like that’s doing more to hurt your profitability (unless collecting insurance claims on fire destruction is a major part of the profit one is expecting).
Jack continues with a reply to a member who says he doesn’t have a water supply in his barn, but hand carries water buckets, and wants to know how Jack proposes to keep the pipes from freezing in winter. Jack says: That depends on the climate. I recognize the irony of having to use electric heat tape to keep a fire system thawed, considering how many fires it has been implicated in, but carefully applied, that’s probably the best solution (assuming that one has electricity in the barn at all, and since this was SOLELY a discussion about commercial barns, I can’t imagine running a business without readily available electricity. I’m curious how they manage in unheated warehouses, myself. Perhaps that’s why so many winter fires get so badly out of hand.
Then Jack returns to our DA’s comment and says: The gentleman (our DA) who suggested that requiring sprinklers in commercial barns would put small businesses out of business indirectly made this a discussion about profit. Further, my original statement was applied to commercial ventures, to include horse facilities when run as a business. To be classified as a viable business and retain tax deductions, a commercial barn would have to  make a profit at least one year out of three. The expense of a sprinkler, as a capital improvement, would be tax deductible, if one were capable of making a profit on the rest of the business.

Message 9 from our DA, who responds to just about every sentence as follows:

>I recognize the irony of having to use electric heat tape to keep a fire system thawed…

But you fail to recognize that it would a) cost a fortune to install and operate. Off the top of my head I estimate we would need 600 feet of heat tape; and b) not comply with code. You want to make this a legal requirement, remember?

>I’m curious how they manage in unheated warehouses, myself.

They use either dry pressurized systems, or none at all. Go read the fire code. You might learn something.

>…indirectly made this a discussion mostly about profit.

You suggested requiring sprinklers in all commercial buildings, not just barns (of course, around here barns not open to the public are agricultural, not commercial…). Such a law would severely impact many small businesses other than horse farms.

>…the expense of a sprinkler, as a capital improvement…

The good old “they’ll just take it off their taxes” myth. You’ve never been in business for yourself, have you?

Message 10: Wow, in answer to DA’s needing 600 feet of heat tape, Jack comes back with: That’s a fortune, alright. At $1.00 a foot, that would cost almost as much as a saddle. And the electric bills! That’s got to be at LEAST as expensive as leaving FOUR 100 watt light bulbs turned on ALL THE TIME! No business owner could ever afford that. You’d have to be Rockefeller, by gum!

>…Go read the fire code. You might learn something.

Yes, of course. I would imagine that you have that enormous tome completely memorized. Not just for your own state, but for all fifty states.

>You suggested requiring sprinklers in all commercial buildings, not just barns…

I suggested that a MORE BENEFICIAL law than legally giving horses protected status as pets, IF ONE WERE A LITIGIOUS SORT, might be requiring sprinklers on commercial buildings—which is not suggesting a law, but suggesting a more beneficial alternative to a stupid law, if one is bound and determined to pass a law of some kind after every disaster. What would the impact on a small horse business of giving horses the legally protected status of pets, with mandatory inspections, reports to be filed, tracking of activities that might cause injuries, et al., ad infinitum?
Obviously the law would have to take into account the use of the building. It would be stupid to require sprinklers on a building used for storing magnesium or phosphorus. And by “all” the law would probably have to exclude those people too poor to afford fire insurance, too poor to rebuild and go on after a fire destroys their livelihood. Further, all such laws that have currently passed apply only to new construction, but it’s a damned good idea to retrofit.

Message 11, from David: I guess I’d have to agree with Jack’s assessment that it would be in a commercial stable’s best interests, by far, to install a sprinkler system. But then, it’s in just about every business’ best interests to protect its buildings, paperwork, inventory and equipment. And of course, the people who work there as well. So why did the government need to mandate fire codes for commercial buildings (in this area, sprinker systems are the law for all public buildings)? Because it’s too easy for business owners, especially small business owners who have trouble making ends meet to take that relatively small risk that “it won’t happen to us, if we’re careful.” But often, “careful” isn’t good enough. Oversights happen. And even the most prudent folks can fall victim to an arsonist (maybe someone wants to collect insurance on a “has-been” nag, and is willing to sacrifice an entire barn of horses to avoid specific scrutiny…). And even a careless smoker that came along for a visit with a client, it’s hard to keep an eye on everyone and get work done at the same time.
Personally, I don’t like stables anyway, I think my critters are much happier in a roomy paddock with a shelter they can walk into if they so desire. They have more room to exercise and the risks of fire and other such disasters hurting them are minimal. But if it ever came to a situation where I had no option but to stall my horses, since fire has always been a big phobia of mine when it comes to stables and such, I would just walk away from an operation that didn’t have a good fire mitigation system in place. I’m the sort who will usually take my business elsewhere when a merchant doesn’t seem to care enough about my convenience to cut into their profit margins by accepting credit cards; and I take my animals’ safety much more seriously than that sort of convenience! Where the law doesn’t step in and mandate safety, I’ll just vote with my patronage. You’ve also got to wonder if an operation is willing to cut corners on one matter of safety, what other corners might they cut on a daily basis, or even in overall construction of their facilities. I’d think it would cost maybe about as much as three sets of good skid-steer (“Bobcat”) tires to install sprinklers, and I hardly flinch when they need replacement from time to time…

Message 12, from our DA, who returned to Jack’s comment about not having running water to a barn: We have a hydrant at the front of the old barn. It feeds self-draining overhead pipes to the stock tanks in the sheds and to the surface pipe that goes to the new barn and to the pasture stock tanks.
In summer this is hooked up all the time, so the stock tanks stay full automatically and we have running water in the new barn. In winter we hook up the overhead pipe as needed to fill the tanks in the sheds and then drain it. The surface pipe is unusable, of course, so the pasture tanks are empty and we carry water to the new barn. Fortunately, it is a short trip and the box stall horses are only in overnight.
We’ve been in business since 1988. We have about forty horses here at the moment.
At a buck a square foot, sprinklers would cost us about $12,000.00, not counting the fire pump and the reservoir. However, the required dry pressurized system would cost a hell of a lot more than a dollar a square foot.
We pay less than $600/year for all perils insurance for our farm buildings. Even if your sprinklers reduced that to zero, I’d be better off investing that $12,000.00 in farm land.

Message 13, from Jack:  Wow. I’m impressed. Most people are paying a lot more than that for fully comprehensive high deductible insurance just for a HOUSE, never mind for a complete business. Heck, just the insurance on my truck is almost that much, and that’s only liability. And that insurance will actually pay for complete replacement on all barns, contents and horses, plus liability on anybody who gets caught in a fire or kicked by a horse? That’s an amazingly good deal. I truly hope you never have to find out why your insurance underwriter is willing to give it to you that cheap.
Still, I’m attached to my horses. I know, messy sentimentalism has no place in business. But if they were burned to death, I don’t think that any amount of insurance payout would truly replace them.

Amen to that, Jack.

Two very important sources for sprinkler system information :

The American Fire Sprinkler Association (http://www.sprinklernet.org)
The Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition (http://www.homefiresprinkler.org)