Don't let corrosion sneak up on your sprinkler system

March 15, 2012 - Corrosion is a sneaky, degenerative problem that can creep up on fire sprinkler systems over time. If oxygen cell corrosion, the primary cause for corrosion in fire sprinkler systems, is left untreated, systems are at risk for microbiologically influenced corrosion (MIC).

"MIC involves multiple bacteria that can cause issues on the inside of fire sprinkler systems, essentially accelerating the corrosion process," said Jay Ways, a corrosion management specialist with United States Alliance Fire Protection (USAFP). "It's unique to fire sprinkler systems because all these different bacteria need the right environment to proliferate."

That environment varies depending on the system. MIC can happen anywhere in a fire sprinkler system, and can occur in old and new systems. To thrive, these bacteria need a constant food source to mature and grow, and must exchange gases to reproduce.

Ways likens failing to nip this nightmare scenario in the bud to neglecting auto maintenance.

"If you don't rotate the tires or change the oil, you can do damage," Ways said. "There are things that need to be maintained and checked. The same is true with sprinkler systems and corrosion."

MIC is a rare secondary form of corrosion. It can happen on its own, but it's typically part of a bigger problem. A telltale sign of MIC are high bacteria levels, which can cause a foul odor and an unnatural color to the water drained from the system. Reduced water pressure and flow in the system is another potential sign. By the time nuisance leaks start, the pipes have begun to perforate. Left untreated, system piping will ultimately require total replacement.

If you can control oxygen cell corrosion in fire sprinkler system, you can control corrosion and MIC. You can ward off MIC and excessive corrosion by controlling the interaction of water, oxygen and metal within your fire protection system. Sprinkler contractors can use chemical corrosion inhibitors to treat water in the pipes and kill the bacteria, or use the chemical corrosion inhibitors as a barrier between the water and the metal to slow down or stop corrosion. Sprinkler contractors can also use automatic air vents to remove the trapped oxygen in wet fire sprinkler systems. If you have a dry sprinkler system, use nitrogen generators to remove oxygen from the equation. In addition, make sure to conduct certain testing and maintenance on your sprinkler system in varying cycles.

You should:
• Make sure valves that control water flowing into the system haven't been inadvertently closed or damaged
• Examine pipes for corrosion and leaks
• Make sure sprinklers aren't hindered by dirt, paint or dust
• Test water flow
• Submit a water sample to a certified lab to test for bacteria

For building managers who need help with testing and maintenance, USAFP provides corrosion management consulting, water sampling and other services.

For more information about USAFP's corrosion evaluation capabilities, contact Jay Ways at (224) 433-5665 or [email protected].

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