Horizontal heavy-duty fire sprinkler head guard

Extra-large, easy-to-install head guards protect fire sprinklers in facilities where impacts are too severe for standard guards – or too costly

Behind every fire sprinkler head is a network of pipes ready to discharge water, often at a moment's notice. Collisions with sprinkler heads can set costly floods in motion. While fire code in many jurisdictions requires protection for impact-prone sprinklers, standard head guards – the go-to devices for impact protection – simply aren't designed to withstand the hits some fire sprinklers are likely to face.

In this article, we explain why certain sprinklers and the areas they protect are vulnerable and look at an emerging solution: heavy-duty fire sprinkler head guards designed for high-impact environments.

If you'd prefer, you can click here to skip directly to our selection of heavy-duty fire sprinkler head guards.

Head guards can prevent damage to delicate, heat-sensitive parts of fire sprinklers – and the flooding that follows

Automatic fire sprinklers feature a simple mechanical trigger that allows water to escape when surrounding temperatures rise. This may be a liquid-filled bulb designed to burst at a given temperature or a small metal link, called a fusible link, that’s joined to the sprinkler head with a heat-sensitive solder. Either way, these parts are delicate enough that even a bump from a clothes hanger could trigger a sprinkler and open the floodgates.

Side view of a fire sprinkler

The red glass bulb on this fire sprinkler head is as fragile as it looks.

Rarely, if ever, do manufacturing defects cause heat-sensitive components to break. But examples of accidental discharge – a term encompassing vandalism, carelessness, and a wide variety of other incidents – are a lot more common. As we've covered in our piece on how to temporarily stop a damaged or activated fire sprinkler head, small hits can cause tens of thousands or even a hundred thousand dollars in damage.

Schools, shopping malls, apartments, gymnasiums, and other facilities have all been damaged by incidents at one time or another. Even basketballs have caused their fair share of floods.

In many cases, these problems can be avoided by installing fire sprinkler head guards. A head guard, also known as a sprinkler cage, surrounds a fire sprinkler head with impact- and fire-resistant material (often, steel wire). They feature large open spaces between small wires that strive to leave the sprinkler's spray characteristics unaffected while preventing unintentional activation.

Standard head guard surrounding a pendent fire sprinkler

This standard head guard shields the fire sprinkler head against impact from several angles with little or no effect on performance. Source: Wikipedia.

Heavy-duty fire sprinkler head guards emerged to meet the needs of contractors working in the semiconductor industry

While standard wire guards have been successful at defending sprinklers against damage from small or slow-moving objects, contractors renovating state-of-the-art manufacturing facilities found that working around fire sprinkler heads – even with conventional head guards – can be a risky endeavor.

In response, Product Design Specialties, an Oregon-based manufacturer of ergonomic tools and hazard mitigation equipment, began developing extra-large head guards. Patrick O'Banion, Product Design Specialties' founder, describes the origin of their heavy-duty head guards:

"I used to build big buildings, such as semiconductor facilities. People would go in after the facility was online and have to do piping and installations and such. Well, when they're swinging a pipe or conduit (or whatever it might be) around those sprinkler heads, I've had them knock those heads off in operating, functioning facilities and interrupt production and everything else – it would flood the area and take the equipment below it offline."

Keeping systems online, O'Banion says, is particularly important in the sub-fab, the area underneath a semiconductor fabrication plant. This multi-billion-dollar space is responsible for neutralizing hazardous materials and purifying the clean spaces at the heart of modern electronics manufacturing. Any impairment of the sub-fab – including fire sprinkler discharge – can halt production or endanger the safety of those working nearby. With some semiconductor manufacturers reporting annual revenues in the tens of billions, the cost of adding extra-strong head guards pales in comparison to the cost of lost productivity.

The use of heavy-duty sprinkler guards has expanded far beyond the semiconductor and electronics industry, however. They are now employed to protect property and productivity in a range of settings, from construction sites and warehouses to a variety of industrial facilities. Essentially, any place in which a sharp impact – say, a bump from a forklift – has the potential to unleash a flood.

A cleanroom in a semiconductor manufacturing facility

Cleanrooms like these are a fixture of modern electronics manufacturing, particularly in the development of semiconductors. Source: Wikipedia.

Product Design Specialties' heavy-duty head guards offer more impact protection, increased visibility, and reduced installation time

Heavy-duty fire sprinkler head guards complement standard guards by providing a "crush zone" designed to stop or, in the case of especially heavy equipment, slow the force of an impact. But it's not only impact-resistance that makes these head guards a favorite of contractors; they’re also easy to install.

Many standard guards install with the sprinkler head itself, seating at the end of the sprinkler's thread connection. Consequently, adding or removing them requires removal of the sprinkler head, a process that requires shutting off and draining system piping.

Product Design Specialties' heavy-duty head guards, however, install over existing fire sprinklers and cages. Each guard includes one or two jig-assembled clamps that secure directly to sprinkler system piping, eliminating the need for sprinkler system shutdown. For many contractors, O'Banion explains, the benefits significantly outweigh any costs: "It may cost you $2,500 to have contractors go down and discharge a sprinkler line, drain it down and then bring it back up just to do a five-minute job. With these guards, you don't have to do that."

"Customers started buying them by the hundreds because they saw the value in it. Whatever they spent on guards, it saved them probably 10 times that in just saving on the discharge and drain-down time."

Black heavy-duty sprinkler head guard

Two clamps secure this black heavy-duty sprinkler head guard to a 1.5-inch pipe.

Because traditional head guards install over a fire sprinkler's thread connection, collisions are also more likely to rip the fire sprinkler out at the base. In contrast, Product Design Specialties' clamp-mounted guards distribute the force of impact along the pipe, adding stability and drastically reducing the possibility that the head guard will pull off a sprinkler head.

But the other benefit of these head guards is that they can prevent impacts before they occur. O'Banion mentions that their large size – and often, bright colors – encourage people working around them to keep clear:

"We’ve made it bulky enough to have a crush zone without setting off the sprinkler head. And it’s big enough – and available in bright colors – where it can be recognized, so maybe it won’t be hit in the first place. That's why we designed it the way we did."

Heavy-duty head guards supplement but don't replace listed head guards in NFPA-compliant fire sprinkler systems

In jurisdictions throughout the United States, fire safety standards developed by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) govern the use and placement of fire sprinklers and head guards. These guidelines, established in NFPA 13: Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems, require the use of head guards when impacts are likely.

From the 2016 edition of NFPA 13

6.2.8 Guards. Sprinklers subject to mechanical injury shall be protected with listed guards.

"Listed" guards are those that have been evaluated and certified for use with a specific sprinkler head. Fire sprinkler systems are designed with specific discharge patterns and coverage areas in mind. Listings account for impact resistance, water distribution, heat resistance, and more, ensuring that a head guard leaves the firefighting characteristics of the sprinkler intact.

Product Design Specialties' heavy-duty head guards are not listed, meaning that NFPA-compliant fire sprinkler systems shouldn't be protected with these guards alone. But as a supplement to existing head guards – or as a temporary guard on the job site – these heavy-duty guards can provide an unmatched level of protection. Consult your local fire marshal or other authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) before installing.

Heavy-duty fire sprinkler head guards provide superior impact protection

While O'Banion developed them with the semiconductor industry in mind, these heavy-duty head guards are used in a range of settings: construction sites, commercial kitchens, pharmaceutical facilities, recreation centers, and stadiums can all stand to benefit from robust impact protection.

Product Design Specialties' extra-large, heavy-duty fire sprinkler head guards are now available at QRFS. Each guard is made from hot-rolled mild steel, a material hard enough to resist hard impact but soft enough to flex and limit damage to fire sprinkler system piping.

A vertical-type headguard attached to a pendent sprinkler head

Our selection of heavy-duty fire sprinkler head guards includes this yellow guard for vertical pipe, designed to protect pendent sprinklers on a hard-pipe drop or upright sprinklers on a sprig.

Available in black, high-visibility yellow, white, and red, these heavy-duty head guards clamp quickly to 1 1/2-inch pipe. Our selection includes models that clamp in-line to horizontal pipe, placing a jig-assembled clamp on either side of a fire sprinkler head, as well as single-clamp models that protect fire sprinklers located at pipe ends – either vertical or horizontal.

Click here to browse our selection of heavy-duty sprinkler head guards.

Have questions about installation or applications? Call QRFS at +1 (888) 361-6662 or email us at [email protected].