When moisture finds its way into a dry pipe fire sprinkler system and freezes, it could lead to a big wet mess. If your ministry has this type of fire suppression system in any part of its buildings, it’s crucial to perform proper maintenance before freezing temperatures arrive.
Until excessive heat activates the system, dry pipe sprinkler systems contain pressurized air instead of water. This makes them ideal for use in attics and unheated spaces where typical pipes would freeze.
Due to condensation and required tests, moisture can collect in a dry pipe sprinkler system. If this moisture freezes, the resulting pressure can crack a pipe and activate the fire sprinklers, causing thousands of dollars in water damage.
“This has become a winter nightmare for many of our churches,” says Julie DuVall, senior subrogation lead for Brotherhood Mutual's claims department.
If your ministry has dry pipe fire sprinklers in any of its buildings, be sure to schedule professional inspections regularly and train ministry staff to empty low-point drains before winter arrives.
After Sunday services one January, Brad Heykoop was settling in to watch the Denver Broncos game at home when he got a call from the church’s alarm monitoring system.
As operations director for WaterStone Church in Littleton, Colorado, Heykoop was accustomed to an occasional alarm call. Normally, they turned out to be false, but he returned to the church.
Heykoop arrived to find a river of water flowing out the front doors and across the walk. He traced it upstream to a waterfall gushing from the ceiling above the associate pastor’s office. A pipe in the church’s dry fire sprinkler system had frozen and cracked, activating the system. By the time he was able to turn off the water, more than $80,000 worth of damage had been done.
About 10 staff members were dislocated for more than three months while workers dried out and repaired the damaged area.
It’s important to understand exactly what services your fire protection company will perform.
Service contracts from fire protection companies often state that it’s the owner’s responsibility to understand and follow NFPA 25, the National Fire Protection Association's rulebook for the inspection, testing, and maintenance of fire protection systems. While anyone can buy the manual, it's typically not found on most ministry shelves.
“A lot of churches think the vendor is taking care of everything,” says Jonathan Wright, a maintenance technician for Brotherhood Mutual.
If there are simple tasks that the vendor leaves up to ministry staff, you need to know that. Otherwise, it may not get done.
After running fresh water through pipes during an inspection, fire protection professionals will drain resulting water out of the dry pipe system. However, residual moisture can accumulate in low places long after the inspection is done. Many contracts state that it’s the owner’s responsibility to re-drain the low spots or call a professional back to complete the maintenance.
NFPA standards say low-point drains should always be emptied before freezing temperatures arrive. It’s a task that maintenance staff can learn to perform, but it’s important to do it properly. Opening or closing a valve too quickly can set off the system, allowing water into the pipes and alerting the fire department.
Ask the contractor who maintains your fire protection system to identify all of the low-point drains in each building and demonstrate how to safely remove water from them.
WaterStone Church had paid a company to inspect and drain its dry fire sprinkler system each year, but there was a hidden defect that no one discovered until it was too late, Heykoop says. When the dry sprinkler system was installed in the rafters, it was hidden by drywall and an acoustical drop ceiling.
There was no way for anyone to access or inspect it, he says. At some point, a pipe support broke and caused the sprinkler pipe to sag. Over the years, water apparently collected in that low spot instead of running toward the drains, he said.
“There’s a spot where you can drain the system, but no water ever came out,” Heykoop says. Since then, the church has given the dry sprinkler system a better slope, added a trap door so inspectors can access it, and hired a different company to perform fire sprinkler maintenance.
It has been an educational experience, Heykoop says. “As facilities manager of the church, you can’t know everything about everything,” Heykoop says. “It’s critical to find someone you can depend on and who is trustworthy to do the work.”
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