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#71 -- When to Replace Fire Sprinkler Heads in a Fire Sprinkler System?

Posted by Jason Hugo and Anna Hartenbach on 8/24/2017 to Fire Sprinkler Systems
Fire sprinklers are known for their longevity, in most cases, their life span can be comparable to the buildings in which they are found. But because fire sprinklers remain idle, in most instances, it’s difficult to identify a problem. 

Unless a potential problem is highly visible – like a leak or corrosion – it may go unnoticed for months or even years. This means in the case of an emergency the system may not activate properly … or at all!

That’s definitely not a situation you want to be in!

The only true way to identify a problem is by performing regular inspections, testing, and maintenance. However, if most of these are performed based on the age of the sprinklers, how can one tell the age of a fire sprinkler head? Once you know the age, how do you know when to test or replace a fire sprinkler head? In this article, we’ll help you find the answer to all of your most burning questions!

When to Replace Fire Sprinkler Heads

Already know you need to replace your fire sprinkler heads? Feel free to jump on over and check out our selection of commercial fire sprinklers.

Let’s figure out the hard part first, shall we…

How do I determine the age of fire sprinklers in a system?

To determine the age of fire sprinklers in a system, begin by inspecting building documentation and other pertinent information. In the best-case scenario, there is a record of the building completion and system installation, renovations and/or upgrades, and the sprinklers within the system. Otherwise, you’ll need to rely on the building plans and completion information to determine the timeframe the system went into service.

Formerly, it was common practice for the inspector to examine the supply of spare sprinkler heads in the fire sprinkler head replacement cabinet. The reasoning is that, in theory, these sprinklers are the same age as those installed in the system. However, if any spares have been used and replaced over the years they may not match the age of those within the system. This is where it gets a bit tricky and, as an inspector, why you should not rely on this method alone. 

When do I perform a fire sprinkler inspection?

NFPA 25 suggests annual sprinkler inspections by a professional, at a minimum. However, industry best practices suggest performing quarterly inspections as well. 

Visual Inspection
A man performs a visual inspection. (Photo Credit)

From the 2016 Edition of NFPA 25:
5.2.1.1Sprinklers shall be inspected from the floor level annually.

Quarterly inspections apply mostly to facility managers and maintenance personnel. In conducting inspections, it’s best to form a routine and remain consistent. Over time it creates a familiarity with the system and makes it easy to spot any changes or potential problems. 

As with most procedures, the NFPA does allow exceptions to the rule of inspections.

From the 2016 Edition of NFPA 25:
5.2.1.1.3*Sprinklers installed in concealed spaces such as above suspended ceilings shall not require inspection.
5.2.1.1.4Sprinklers installed in areas that are inaccessible for safety considerations due to process operations shall be inspected during each scheduled shutdown.

It’s pertinent to keep a record of all inspections. Doing so creates a record of any issues that arise, actions taken, and helps maintain the overall health of the system. 

Service providers may or may not use forms to conduct annual inspections that are considered acceptable to all Authorities Having Jurisdiction (AHJ). It’s up to a building owner, facilities manager, etc. to verify that the forms are acceptable. Ideally, the form is acceptable to any who might need to review it and confirm that inspections meet NFPA 25 criteria. 

It’s important to note that NFPA 25 doesn’t have a specific form that must be filled out, but it does provide many example forms that are available for use.

Adequate records are not only necessary for inspections, but lend themselves to sprinkler testing, as well.

When do I perform fire sprinkler testing?

It’s best to perform sprinkler testing on a routine basis, according to the age and type of sprinklers within the system. 

Although fire sprinkler heads tend to have a long-life span within a system, the testing frequency increases over time and as they age. The age of the sprinklers, as we discussed above, is based on their installation date. If the date of installation is unidentifiable, the manufacturing date of the fire sprinkler heads may be used instead (though their manufacturing date may predate the system).

From the 2016 Edition of NFPA 25:
A.5.3.1.1Sprinklers should first be given a visual inspection in accordance with 5.2.1.1.1. to determine if a replacement is required. Sprinklers that have passed the visual inspection should then be laboratory tested for sensitivity and functionality. The waterway should clear when sensitivity/functionality tested at 5 psi (0.4 bar) or the minimum listed operating pressure for dry sprinklers.

Until the 50-year mark, it’s not necessary to test standard response sprinkler heads. Because quick-response sprinklers have only been around since about 1980, their lifespan and failure rates are still somewhat unknown. Testing them at 20 years, rather than 50, provides a way to identify issues earlier. 

Adapted from Table 5.1.1.2 about testing in the 2016 Edition of NFPA 25:
TypeFrequencyReference
Standard Response SprinklersAt 50 years and every 10 years thereafter5.3.1.1.1., 5.3.1.1.1.1, 5.3.1.1.1.2
Sprinklers At 75 years and every 5 years thereafter5.3.1.1.1.5
Dry Sprinklers10 years and every 10 years thereafter5.3.1.1.1.6
Sprinklers (extra high or greater temperature solder type)5 years5.3.1.1.1.4
Fast Response SprinklersAt 20 years and every 10 years thereafter5.3.1.1.1.3
Sprinklers in harsh environments as defined by A.5.3.1.1.25 years5.3.1.1.2


As is visible in the table, special types of fire sprinklers and those subjected to harsh environments have a much shorter span between testing periods. Dry sprinklers, specifically, have a 50 percent failure rate after they reach the 10-year mark, according to the NFPA. 

Testing is not necessary for the full set of sprinkler heads within the system, but rather a representative sample. 

From the 2016 Edition of NFPA 25:
5.3.1.1*Where required by this section, sample sprinklers shall be submitted to a recognized testing laboratory acceptable to the authority hav
5.3.1.2*A representative sample of sprinklers for testing per 5.3.1.1.1 shall consist of a minimum of not less than four sprinklers or 1 percent of the number of sprinklers per individual sprinkler sample, whichever is greater.

A representative sample means that sprinklers should not be selected solely on their ease of access. It’s best to select a random sample from different floors, rooms, and areas within the facility. When selecting a sample set, make sure to pick sprinklers from different types and environments.

The sample set must undergo a plunge test. Using the controlled plunge test apparatus, the sprinkler is pressurized with 5 psi (0.4 bar) of air pressure. The test measures the amount of time it takes the fusible element to activate. 

When a fire sprinkler head from a sample set fails to activate in the appropriate amount of time during the plunge test, it’s necessary to replace all sprinklers within the system. This takes us to our last topic!

When do I resort to replace fire sprinkler heads?

In short, fire sprinkler heads must be replaced if they fail the plunge test, if they are heavily loaded with a contaminate, if they have been painted, or if they are leaking or damaged. Without a doubt, according to NFPA 25 5.3.1.1.1.2, fire sprinklers manufactured before 1920 must be replaced. Believe us; there are still some out there!

An inspection can provide a good indication as to whether any of the sprinklers within the system need to be replaced. 

From the 2016 Edition of NFPA 25:
5.2.1.1.1*Any sprinklers that show signs of any of the following shall be replaced:
  (1) Leakage
  (2) Corrosion detrimental to sprinkler performance
  (3) Physical damage
  (4) Loss of fluid in the glass bulb heat-responsive element
  (5) Loading detrimental to sprinkler performance
  (6) Paint other than that applied by the sprinkler manufacturer

Because sprinklers fail more as they age, replacement might seem like a better option rather than continuing to test them periodically. It’s helpful to weigh the costs of testing in comparison to purchasing new fire sprinkler heads to determine the best plan of action. 

Sprinklers considered “heavily loaded” are those that have dust, dirt, debris, or grease that is difficult to remove without touching the sprinkler head. Before you resort to replacement, you can try a touch-free method of cleaning dirty fire sprinkler heads. If you find it necessary to wipe or scrub with cleaning solution, then it’s necessary to replace the loaded sprinkler heads.

Dirty Sprinkler Head
A dirty or "loaded" fire sprinkler head.

Do not, I repeat, DO NOT paint fire sprinklers (or cover plates)! If a fire sprinkler head has been painted, it needs to be replaced by sprinklers with the same characteristics, according to NFPA 13 6.2.6.2.1. Painting sprinkler heads can cause irreparable damage that can cause the sprinklers to malfunction, which is why should never paint them and replace those that have been painted.

It goes without saying that leaking or damage can hinder the proper operation of a fire sprinkler head. Leaking or damaged fire sprinkler heads must be replaced as soon as possible, which is why it’s helpful to have a fire sprinkler head replacement cabinet on site.

Damaged Fire Sprinkler Head
Damaged fire sprinkler head (Photo Credit)

If you’re in the market to replace fire sprinkler heads, consider purchasing from QRFS! We offer various commercial and residential fire sprinklers from Viking, Victaulic, Tyco, Reliable, and Senju. Regardless of whether your job needs one sprinkler head or hundreds, we’ve got them in-stock and ready to ship to you!

When you purchase from us, you benefit from our quality customer service and extensive product knowledge. We try to stay up-to-date on NFPA Code and industry best practices so that we can provide you with the right information at the right time.


Still have questions? Add a comment below for us and we’ll reply as soon as we can to get you on the right track!

This blog was originally posted by Jason Hugo and Anna Hartenbach at QRFS.com/blog on August 24, 2017. If you found this article helpful, check us out at Facebook.com/QuickResponseFireSupply or on Twitter @QuickResponseFS.

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Date 9/11/2017
Taylor Bishop
Thanks for the informative read on replacing the head of fire sprinklers. I appreciate that you mentioned how to find out how old a system is, since it can help you determine how long it has been in use. Maybe it could be useful to learn how to read these documents that you mentioned, so that you know where to find the information that you are looking for. http://www.nwfireinc.com/

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