Sprinklers go rogue

Ferm Engineering has identified a big increase in sprinkler failure insurance claims.

Ferm, along with US industry associations, is researching the causes and currently preparing reports on three failures.

Managing Director Steve Burton says the failures are becoming regular occurrences in industrial and commercial buildings, warehouses, high-rise offices and apartments and, to a lesser degree, shopping centres.

There are multiple causes, including poor designs, insufficient maintenance, and high water pressure that, over time, can force couplings, gaskets and control valves to rupture.

Insurers are then exposed to large water damage claims and recoveries can be difficult if warranties are voided because components have been used in circumstances for which they were not designed.

“We often find information’s not recorded in log books and sometimes there are hints that a system is over pressure. We need to do the forensic work to indentify the cause,” Steve said.

He estimates the cost on the floor of origin of a sprinkler failure at $2,000 per minute and it can take 10 to 40 minutes for responders to get to the site and find an isolation valve.

“Cascading water can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and some claims run into millions. It can be catastrophic when lifts and mains switchboards are affected,” he said.

“Sprinkler or fire component failures can be a health hazard because water in the pipes is putrid and may have been sitting there for many years. Water is hard to trace so mould and clean-up costs complicate the repairs.”

There are also business interruption costs, plus the need for owners, residents, tenants and their staff to relocate while repairs are made. “The bigger and higher the building, the greater the risk and the cost,” Steve said.

The solution is preventive audits where Ferm’s qualified fire engineers physically examine sprinkler and hydrant systems to highlight weak points and provide detailed repair scopes so they can be fixed.

Ferm Engineering also audits maintenance controls to ensure work is conducted regularly and properly documented and can prepare service contracts using competent providers.

Most sprinkler systems need to be replaced after 40-50 years. Building owners need to budget that into forward cost plans and their insurance coverage.