#283 – Fire Sprinkler Head Replacement: Who is Authorized to Do It and How?
#283 – Fire Sprinkler Head Replacement: Who is Authorized to Do It and How?
It’s time to replace the fire sprinkler heads…now what?
So, your fire sprinkler heads need replacing.
Perhaps one or more were activated (during a real emergency or otherwise). If a sprinkler head flows water because of a fire, a malfunction, an accident, or vandalism, you need to replace it.
Maybe heads are too old. Or maybe an inspection revealed leakage, corrosion, loading (dust and debris), damage, a bulb without fluid, or paint not applied by the manufacturer. The sprinkler may have been installed in the wrong orientation—an upright sprinkler placed where a pendent should go, or the pipe pointing it in the wrong direction. You have to replace those sprinkler heads. (Check out our article about determining when to replace fire sprinkler heads for more information on sprinkler lifespan and inspection.)
For whatever reason, you need to replace your fire sprinkler heads. But what’s next? Read on to learn the steps involved and who is qualified to replace sprinklers.
Replacing fire sprinkler heads takes proper know-how. It also requires proper equipment. Let QRFS outfit you with the commercial and residential sprinkler heads, sprinkler covers, escutcheons, tools, cabinets, and other supplies you need to get your fire sprinkler system up and running again. Don’t see what you need? Contact us and we’ll help you get it.
NFPA standards outline sprinkler replacement requirements
The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) issues standards governing the replacement of fire sprinkler heads, and the primary resource for commercial systems is NFPA 25: Standard for the Inspection, Testing, and Maintenance of Water-Based Fire Protection Systems. Some initial maintenance guidance is also found in NFPA 13: Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems.
NFPA 25 stipulates the following steps to get your sprinkler system back to normal:
1. Assess the new situation and adapt your facility. Fire sprinklers provide critical protection, and a non-working sprinkler may constitute a system impairment. There are three levels of concern with system problems: non-critical deficiencies, critical deficiencies, and impairments. You could have a single loaded (dirt- or dust-covered) or painted sprinkler in a room with many sprinklers, and it might be considered non-critical; but if half the sprinklers in a compartment are affected or the only sprinkler in that space is non-working, it would likely rise to critical deficiency or even impairment, as determined by a maintenance professional and the authority having jurisdiction. NFPA’s classification system is intended to provide flexibility, as situations and conditions vary.
If it’s determined that you have an impairment, you must take steps to protect your facility. You’ll need to do administrative work and take preventative measures until the system is fixed, which may include a fire watch.
2. Acquire the necessary parts. NFPA 25 requires you to stock replacement parts for your sprinklers. If you don’t have them, get them. And if you do, you’ll need replacements for the replacement parts.
3. Replace the heads. Someone qualified needs to perform the repair. Is that you? It depends.
4. Bring your system back online. Don’t forget to charge your sprinkler system with water or air (or nitrogen) after draining it during replacement. If you had an emergency impairment, you may need a professional test of your system. For example, anything that affects less than 20 (or any) sprinklers requires inspecting for leaks at system working pressure, whereas a problem affecting more than 20 requires a hydrostatic test. There will be more administrative work at this stage, too.
Deficient or impaired fire sprinkler systems—administrative steps
As the property owner or their designated representative in the matter of fire protection, you have certain administrative responsibilities in the event of non-critical or critical deficiency or impairment to the fire sprinklers. These steps become a lot more complex if the system has been determined to be impaired, typically by the service provider or other maintenance professionals.
In all cases, you will have to hang tags marking the affected systems and NFPA 25 recommends that reports and forms should “contain a section that specifically identifies any deficiencies and impairments that were observed” (Annex B.4). All categories also require corrective action, some of which may be specific to local laws.
For noncritical and critical deficiencies, NFPA 25 states that they “should be corrected as soon as practical after considering the nature and severity of the risk. It should be noted that many jurisdictions have requirements for the timely correction of impairments and/or deficiencies.”
In contrast, impairments “should be addressed promptly by either immediately correcting the condition or implementing the impairment procedures found in Chapter 15.” (A.3.3.7) Again, the specific requirements are subject to local laws.
Notify the appropriate authorities of impairments
Many people want or need to know when your fire sprinkler systems are inoperable. Sections 15.5.2(5-7) of NFPA 25 list the parties you should notify of a sprinkler impairment. They include:
- The fire department
- Your insurance carrier, if applicable
- Your alarm company, if applicable
- The facility owner, if that’s not you
- Facility supervisors
- Other Authorities Having Jurisdiction (AHJs) that are applicable in your area
NFPA 25 requires you to mark deficient or impaired water-based fire protection systems with tags. The tags should be weather-resistant and highly visible, and section 15.3 details additional specifications for impairments. They should, according to A.15.3.1, tell the reader:
- The type of impairment
- What areas are affected
- The time and date the impairment began
- The person responsible
Tags must be hung on fire department connection points and on the control valve—in this case, the risers. Tags are especially vital on the fire department connection because they alert firefighters to an abnormal condition; if tags are only placed on system control valves, firefighters might not discover them.
Local jurisdictions may require a color-coding system for ITM tagging. These will vary from place to place. For instance, the standards of the Texas Department of Insurance (available here) use only two colors, yellow and red, to distinguish between systems that are noncompliant with NFPA standards and systems that are impaired.
NFPA itself suggests a four-color tag system. Check out our post about classifying deficiencies and impairments in standpipe and sprinkler systems for a breakdown of NFPA 25’s recommendations in this regard.
Impaired fire sprinklers: preventative measures
An out-of-service sprinkler system puts property and lives at risk and you need to take steps to protect the structure while the system is down. Deficiencies also require prompt action “as practical,” but an impairment takes this urgency up a notch.
Make no mistake: with your fire sprinkler system impaired for a long period, you cannot just go on with business as usual after doing some paperwork. Section 15.5.2 of NFPA 25 stipulates that when your protection systems are impaired for 10 hours out of a 24-hour period, you MUST take certain precautionary measures.
Note that the word “consecutive” was not used. The steps must be taken after 10 total hours of impairment. Section 15.5.2 (4) states that when this condition is met, you must do at least one of the following:
- Evacuate the affected area or the whole building.
- Eliminate ignition sources and limit fuel sources.
- Institute a fire watch.
- Set up a temporary water supply.
Evacuation is easy to understand, even if it is inconvenient. If your sprinklers are impaired, keep everyone—employees and customers—out of the area until repairs are completed and the system is brought back online. While this option is simple, it slashes productivity and can be very costly, depending on the facility. You may choose other strategies because of this.
Eliminating sparks and fuel
Sometimes, you just can’t stop everything because your fire sprinklers are being fixed. Fortunately, NFPA 25 allows you to mitigate your fire risk by eliminating ignition sources and limiting fuel sources. Eliminating ignition sources commonly means stopping hot work, which is work such as burning, cutting, grinding, or welding that uses flame or produces sparks.
A key step in limiting fuel sources is “isolating or removing flammable liquids or gases.” In many industrial settings, however, stopping hot work and getting rid of volatile compounds requires all work to stop, making this option no more attractive than evacuation. For this reason, many facilities opt to institute a fire watch.
Implementing a fire watch
A fire watch is an active security measure. Designated personnel, whether they are your own people or outside contractors, patrol the facilities 24/7. They look for fire, activate fire alarms and summon the fire department as necessary, extinguish fires as necessary and possible, and document their activities. A fire watch allows work (including hot work) to continue on your property as normally as possible, even though you have to pay someone to keep an eye on the building. Note that if you designate internal personnel to conduct a fire watch, they cannot do anything else.
Check out this article for more information on when and how to set up a fire watch.
Setting up a temporary water supply
This doesn’t involve sprinkler head replacement. If a fire sprinkler system impairment involves the loss of the water source and/or a portion of the system requires an alternate source to function, a temporary water supply that bypasses the main supply can be employed. There are several options for a temporary water supply for your building. For instance, you can rent tanks of water or set up temporary piping. These alternate supplies have to be approved by the local AHJ.
Fire sprinkler replacement: make sure you have the replacement parts
If you have to replace your fire sprinkler heads, you’ll ideally use the spare heads that you are required to have on site. You’ll need to make sure you have the parts you need and order new ones to replace the replacements.
NFPA 25 and NFPA 13 both require you to keep sufficient stock of replacement sprinkler heads on site. Failing to keep enough replacement sprinkler heads is a common code violation. You should store your replacement sprinkler heads, other parts, and a wrench (required by NFPA 25) in a cabinet like one of these. Cabinets keep fire sprinkler heads organized, clean, and accessible.
You need at least 6 replacement heads per NFPA 25 (and NFPA 13)—more, if you have more than 300 fire sprinkler heads installed:
From the 2017 edition of NFPA 25
220.127.116.11.4 The stock of spare sprinklers shall include all types and ratings installed and shall be as follows:
(1) For protected facilities having under 300 sprinklers — no fewer than 6 sprinklers
(2) For protected facilities having 300 to 1000 sprinklers — no fewer than 12 sprinklers
(3) For protected facilities having over 1000 sprinklers — no fewer than 24 sprinklers
If you use more than one kind of sprinkler head (for instance, if you use both quick-response and standard sprinkler heads), you must have at least 2 of each kind. If you have dry sprinklers of different lengths, you aren’t required to keep spares for them under NFPA 25 section 18.104.22.168.3, as long as you have other means to restore the system to service.
When you replace your fire sprinkler heads, be certain to order new parts. The requirement to stock spares doesn’t go away just because you recently repaired your sprinkler system. Replace the replacements.
Besides spare sprinkler heads, NFPA 25 (section 22.214.171.124.5—.6) stipulates that your sprinkler cabinet should contain a wrench specified by the manufacturer of the spare sprinkler heads for their installation, plus a list of the sprinkler heads installed on the property.
Check out our article on stocking a fire sprinkler head replacement cabinet for more details about sprinkler head cabinets, including how many sprinkler heads to stock, where to store the cabinet, what goes on the list of sprinkler heads, and more. Also, have a look at this article to help you find the right fire sprinkler wrench.
Replacing fire sprinkler heads—who is qualified?
You’ve made the calls. You’ve hung the tags. You’ve taken steps to prevent fires. Now it’s time to do the deed and replace the fire sprinkler heads. But can you do it yourself? And how is it done?
Section 126.96.36.199 of NFPA 25 says: “Inspection, testing, and maintenance shall be performed by qualified personnel.” But what does “qualified” mean? NFPA 25 does not define this term beyond saying that a qualified person is “competent and capable” for the task and meets whatever requirements are set by local AHJs.
If someone is trained on how to do it and has approval from the local authorities, they can replace fire sprinkler heads. But repairing fire sprinkler systems is not the same as putting together an IKEA table. You can’t fake your way through it. And you can’t become qualified by watching a YouTube video. If you clicked on this article to learn how to replace fire sprinkler heads, you may need to hire a professional.
Even if you do really know what you’re doing, your local AHJs might not allow you to do this work without certification. For instance, the state of California has laws (described here) requiring workers who install, alter, or repair fire sprinklers to be certified. Certification in California entails thousands of hours of experience and passing a written test. These requirements are difficult. Others may be less so. Check with your local AHJ to determine who is qualified to repair fire sprinklers in your area.
Likewise, ensure that any contractor you hire to do the work is properly licensed and certified according to local authorities. Check out our tips for selecting a fire sprinkler contractor for more suggestions.
Fire sprinkler replacement: how it’s done
Remember, to replace your own fire sprinkler heads, you must be qualified—that means you must be properly trained and comply with the laws in your local jurisdiction. Reading this article will not make you qualified. The steps outlined here are not meant to be comprehensive. Rather, they will help you understand what will happen when sprinkler heads are replaced.
Moreover, this article only outlines the replacement process for wet systems, which tend to be the most straightforward fire sprinkler systems. The more complex the system, the more difficult maintenance can be. Dry fire sprinkler systems, for instance, use air pressure to hold a valve closed so that water does not freeze within the pipes in cold environments. When replacing the head on a dry sprinkler system, a professional has to make sure the system doesn’t trip and flood the pipe plus re-pressurize the system. A preaction system uses valves controlled by other sensors to prevent the accidental discharge of water. Maintenance on such a system will also be more complicated.
All that being said, these are the main steps a professional will take when replacing fire sprinkler heads in a wet system.
Shut off the water
First, the professional closes the valve supplying water to the fire sprinklers being serviced, isolating the sprinklers from the water main. They will do this with the control valve at the fire sprinkler riser. Properly closing the control valve for the correct set of sprinklers prevents water from getting everywhere when you service the system.
Drain the system
Isolating the sprinkler system from the water main doesn’t get rid of the water in the pipes. Before a sprinkler head is removed, the sprinkler system has to be drained. Next, the professional contractor drains water from the system and out of the building, typically using the main drain at the riser.
Replace the sprinkler head
Next, they carefully remove the sprinkler head with a wrench, being wary of pressurized water behind the head. Even though the water should be off and the system should be drained, mistakes happen. A little bit of water leaking from behind the sprinkler head is expected.
The old fire sprinkler heads get thrown out. They can’t be repaired and reused, even if it seems like a problem can be fixed. Section 188.8.131.52 of NFPA 25 makes this explicit: “When a sprinkler has been removed for any reason, it shall not be reinstalled.”
Then, they apply PTFE to the threads of the new fire sprinkler head and carefully install it using the wrench specified by the manufacturer.
In this video, SpiL Team2 demonstrates the removal of a fire sprinkler head, emphasizing the importance of using the manufacturer’s wrench, not reusing old sprinkler heads, and making sure the correct system is drained:
Turn the water back on (and do some tests and administrative work)
With the fire sprinkler heads safely installed, the control valve at the riser is opened again, introducing water to the system. Until this step is completed, the system is still impaired.
If you replaced your sprinkler heads because of an emergency impairment (from malfunction, activation, or found through inspection), a fire protection professional will have to inspect and test your system according to section 15.7(1) of NFPA 25. This can include checks for corrosion and damage in pipes and sprinklers as well as air tests.
Section 15.7 requires a few more things. After restoring the fire sprinkler system to service, you must revise the administrative and protective work you did before. Everyone you notified about your system’s impairment—the fire department, the insurance company, the alarm company, and more—needs to be aware that your system is no longer impaired. The impairment (or deficiency) tags are also no longer accurate. They may be removed (a professional can do this after a specified amount of time) and updated with appropriate tags that delineate the maintenance, according to local rules.
Finally, with approval from your AHJ, you can let people back into the area. Your employees can do hot (or normal) work again. And don’t forget to tell your fire watch that they are no longer needed. You’ve been paying them to keep a close eye on the property long enough.
Replacing fire sprinkler means more than just turning a wrench
Replacing a fire sprinkler head can feel daunting. From discovering the deficiency or impairment to restoring the system to service, there are a lot of steps. Not to worry, though. If you stay organized and consult professionals, you’ll be fine. Let QRFS outfit you with the supplies you need to get your fire sprinkler system up and running again.
QRFS can outfit you with commercial fire sprinkler heads and accessories, signs and tags, pipe hangers and accessories, sprinkler cabinets, and other equipment you need to replace your fire sprinkler heads or get an otherwise deficient or impaired system back into service.