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Tuesday, 22 October 2019

An alternative to fire sprinklers for improving life safety in high rise buildings

Many councils are planning to install sprinklers in high-rise buildings in England. This follows a call to improve fire safety in residential buildings in light of the Grenfell Tower tragedy. Yet, there is evidence to suggest that sprinklers are not the best solution for improving life safety.

Sprinklers can reduce the heat output from a fire by containing its growth, however the main problem for means of escape is smoke. Sprinklers have been shown to reduce overall smoke toxicity, however for the critical period when persons need to escape this reduction is not enough to maintain tenable conditions. In some cases, the time for smoke toxicity to reach a critical level is not very different from an unsprinklered fire.

Studies show that the risk of death from fire affects mainly the most vulnerable - those who cannot self-evacuate - often including elderly or disabled people living in social housing. Thirty per cent of fire-related fatalities in 2017-2018 were from gas or smoke, one of the immediate and early dangers from fires.

Although sprinkler systems can improve fire safety and prevent property damage, they can take a long time to operate because of the time it takes to heat the ceiling bulbs to the trigger temperature of 57°C. The time it takes to warn residents of a fire is crucial to vulnerable residents in social housing when self-evacuation is not always an option.

Plumis have developed Automist Smartscan Hydra, a watermist system which can raise an alarm and tackle a fire up to two minutes earlier than sprinklers. That’s a significant amount of life-saving time when it comes to limiting exposure to toxic gases and enabling safe evacuation from high rise buildings. 

Where as water in its large droplet form is only recommended for type A fires - those caused by involving organic solid materials such as wood, cloth, paper, plastics, coal - Watermist technology is capable of tackling the other common domestic fires types as well as those involving electrical equipment. Although traditional sprinklers provide suppression eventually on oil fires, anyone close to a pan of oil underneath a sprinkler when it activates is at risk of burns.

Another significant consideration when it comes to improving fire safety in high-rise buildings is cost. Research in ‘The effectiveness of sprinklers…’ suggests that residential sprinklers are generally not cost-effective for life safety. The Automist can be installed with reduced plumbing requirements. A tank or commercial water supply is not required, and it uses flexible hosing so does not have to be fitted in the ceiling. If councils are intended on improving fire safety, many residential buildings will be to have systems retrofitted, which poses a significant and unique challenge for many buildings.

As the Automist uses a method of intelligent targeting to locate a fire it can direct the water exactly where it’s needed with no wastage. The high momentum spray targets even shielded fires. This kind of fire suppression technology is good news for high rise buildings which can prove to have more complex needs for protection. It ensures the water supply is not exhausted, prevents false activation. When activation does occur it causes minimal damage with minimal clear up.

Many organisations have been piloting the Automist to improve fire safety, with over 10,000 installations in the UK and US already. The wall-wall-mounted spray head has enabled them to avoid asbestos while retrofitting the system, something which is often prevalent in older buildings.

Student accommodation in Sheffield has also retrofitted the system to protect the properties from false alarms and unnecessary damage. The double knock activation reduces the likelihood of false alarms and the pump causes minimal damage to an affected room after activation.

Goodridge Freedom House USA is an IIIB building that serves as a museum displaying precious items that belonged to the house with office space above. They fitted the Automist to prevent large water damage in the event of activation. Its targeted heat detection system means that a fire is dealt with in the specific activation area, avoiding damage to unaffected areas of the precious building.

How we live in our homes and the fire risks we put into them is ever-evolving. The fire safety industry is striving to protect and save more lives from dangerous fires. Many more councils are following suit to install this innovative technology to protect social housing. Particularly where retrofitting is required in residence of vulnerable persons, the type of fire suppression systems installed needs to be carefully considered.

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