Environmental sustainability is currently big news. More and more we, the fire protection industry, are being asked to detail and prove our sustainability credentials, including that of our supply chain.
Ensuring that fire sprinkler systems meet safety and performance standards is understandably the industry’s main priority and there are currently very few references to any sustainability requirements in our industry’s rules and standards. However, as regulations for sustainable construction become stricter, main contractors are increasingly required to report on how they will achieve their sustainability targets – therefore as key contractors we need to know where we stand with the work we do.
In 2010 FM Global partnered with HFSC to conduct full-scale fire tests comparing the environmental impact of sprinkler protected and non-sprinkler protected home fires 1. In 2021 FM Global reaffirmed this pioneering work by comparing fire test data from two large-scale fire tests, one in a room with automatic sprinklers, and one without. The results showed that in the sprinkler protected room:
- Greenhouse gas emissions were cut by 97.8%
- Water usage was reduced between 50% and 91%
This study proved that fire sprinklers could help reduce the environmental impact of a fire event and contribute to sustainability goals. Similar results were reported in an earlier BSA report 2 when looking at the environmental impact and cost benefit analysis for fire sprinklers in warehouse buildings. They concluded that “sprinklers are expected to provide a net environmental benefit in an example warehouse (floor area 15,000 m2) of at least 3,730 CO2 tonnes over the system lifetime”.
The fire protection industry’s contribution to minimising the damaging effects of fire pollution is one that is often overlooked. In the aftermath of a major fire incident it can be easy to forget the damaging environmental consequences of a major fire. As detailed by Nick Coleshill in his article ‘Think sprinkler…Think environmental sustainability’ 3 these include:
- Toxic air contamination from the smoke plume
- Toxic water run-off from firefighting activities
- Toxic pollutants released from burned materials
- Use of resources / emissions released on rebuilding what is lost
- Fire damaged materials transferred to landfills
Despite this, it is often the case that none of the metrics that determine coveted sustainability awards consider fire or its impact 4. It seems a major oversight that sustainability awards and acreditations tend to emphasize broader environmental considerations like reducing greenhouse gas emissions, conserving natural resources, promoting biodiversity, and fostering sustainable supply chains over a fire event and its impact. The irony is that a building rebuilt due to extensive fire damage destroying the original can obtain a BREEM rating of ‘very good’ and possibly even win a ‘Sustainability Project of the Year’ award!
Jéromine Andolfatto explains why buildings of the future need sustainability ratings schemes that factor in fire resilience from the outset in her interesting article ‘Above and Beyond’ 5.
It is evident that to achieve a BREEAM or equivalent sustainability rating of ‘very good’ or higher, the inclusion of sprinkler protection is sometimes omitted and the devastating environmental effects of a fire event are not included in the CO2 emissions balance.
Is it right that to achieve a demonstrable reduction in CO2 emissions, for example by the reduction of raw material used in adding a sprinkler system and reduction of CO2 released during diesel pump testing, such an important element of modern construction should be left out of the design? The damaging consequences of a fire far outweigh the inclusion of one, so this way of thinking needs to be addressed.
We understand that avoiding a major fire incident in the first place is a sensible thing to do in terms of minimising environmental damage. However, designing, installing, and maintaining a large sprinkler system has its own environmental impact and it is important that we know what this is and how it can be quantified.
Key sustainability issues in the fire sprinkler industry could be listed as:
- Water Usage
- Suppression Agents
- Energy Efficiency
- Material Usage
- Integrated Building Systems
One of the main focuses of sustainability in the fire sprinkler industry is water usage – looking at ways we can reduce water consumption. Advanced monitoring and data analytics tools are being used to optimize the performance of fire sprinkler systems. These can help identify inefficiencies and reduce water and energy consumption. Reducing the amount of water is required by fitting dry and the testing operated in a closed system.
In response to local regulations and reduced water supplies, recent editions of NFPA standards (25 & 13) have established minimum run times for annual pump tests to help reduce water and save energy and have allowed recycled or reclaimed water (after being analysed) to be used for water supplies.
Where appropriate we should adopt environmentally friendly fire suppression agents - inert gas technologies, alternative synthetic agents such as 3M™ Novec™ 1230, and water mist fire suppression systems. These clean agent fire suppression systems deploy naturally occurring gas, ensuring environmental damage after the event of a fire is lessened.
Improving energy efficiency in fire pump systems by selecting the correct size and avoiding oversized pumps, as well as regular maintenance can help increase pump efficiency.
Using the most environmentally friendly materials and promoting responsible manufacturing and installation practices is an easy practice to adopt. The amount of concrete required varies depending on several factors, including the type of system, the size of the area being covered and local building codes and regulations. In many cases, very little concrete is directly required for the installation of the sprinkler system itself. When necessary, concrete for the base of the pumphouse and/or water tank will be the main requirement with the amount needed depending on the size and weight of the tank/pumphouse enclosure. In almost all projects the pipework is designed and prefabricated before arriving at site meaning there is very little material wastage.
The use of Integrated Building Systems enhances efficiency and sustainability within a building by allowing different subsystems to coordinate their functions. Integrated Building Systems contribute to improved building performance, reduced energy consumption and provide a better overall experience for occupants. In addition to this, collaborative efforts with other industry organisations and stakeholders will help develop and promote environmentally responsible fire sprinkler systems. The use of Building Information Management (BIM) 3D modelling software improves collaboration. It provides better information for improved decision making and ensures environmental data is no longer hidden in the documentation but is readily accessible to anyone who wishes to use it.
Another key issue is of course education and training. Today training and certification programmes for professionals in the fire sprinkler industry incorporate sustainability principles, ensuring that those responsible for designing, installing, and maintaining these systems can incorporate sustainable design into their practice.
It is hoped that sustainability rating schemes such as BREEAM will consider the fire resilience of a building. We know that fire sprinkler systems are proven to be the most effective means of fire protection therefore their inclusion in a construction project should give rise to an improved BREEAM rating – and perhaps more importantly, its omission given a lower rating.
We ourselves must take accountability for future generations and ask questions of our suppliers about their sustainability credentials. We must not be afraid to challenge existing (and sometimes our preferred) suppliers to provide evidence that they stand by their sustainability credentials and claims. If they don’t, look elsewhere. Be demanding and request that deliveries are made on reusable crates with minimal plastic wrapping, reduce waste and embrace new technologies and efficiencies – and where possible become part of that process.
The innovation and adoption of sustainability practices in the fire sprinkler industry is continually growing making it important to keep abreast of the most recent developments. This article in intended to be a thought provoker, for further information on the topics discussed in this paper, please visit:
1 FM Global Research Technical report – ‘Environmental Impact of Automatic Fire Sprinklers’ (March 2010) by Christopher J. Wieczorek, Benjamin Ditch & Robert G. Bill, Jr.
2 BRE Global report - ‘An environmental impact and cost benefit analysis for fire sprinklers in warehouse buildings’ (Dec 2013) by Dr Jeremy Fraser-Mitchell, Dr Owen Abbe and Dr Corinne Williams
3 BAFSA Focus report - ‘Think sprinkler… Think environment sustainability’ (November 2022) by Nick Coleshill, BAFSA Sprinkler Ambassador
4 Are we prioritising energy efficiency over building resilience and business continuity?’ By Iain Cox, Chair of the Business Sprinkler Alliance
5 Above and Beyond – (Nov 2020) by Jéromine Andolfatto, FPA News article.
6 White Paper Environmental and Sustainability Considerations for Controlling Corrosion in Water-Based Fire Sprinkler Systems (August 2022) by Jeffrey T. Kochelek
To speak to us to find out more automatic fire sprinkler systems, please get in touch with our experienced team on 01748 825612, or alternatively email us at email@example.com
Important Notice: Any opinion expressed in this column (blog, article) is the opinion of the author and does not necessarily represent the official position of Richmond Fire Engineers Ltd. In addition, this piece is neither intended, nor should it be relied upon, to provide professional consultation or services.