Flowers in bloom? Time for dry system testing and service

May 20, 2013 - Dry fire sprinkler systems provide an alternative to traditional wet pipe sprinkler systems for unheated areas subject to frozen pipe damage. But dry pipe systems require a special level of care, said Mark Agostinho, the Inspection Supervisor of United States Alliance Fire Protection.

"As important as it is to have consistent, annual testing for a standard wet pipe sprinkler system, the time of year is not necessarily a factor," said Agostinho. "However, with dry pipe systems, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) recommends testing in the spring so as not to introduce water in the system during the winter where freezing conditions can occur."

Unlike standard wet pipe systems, dry pipe systems are pressurized with compressed air. This air pressure keeps water out of the system until the heat of a fire activates a sprinkler and allows the system to fill with water, directing water flow to the fire.

Because dry pipe systems include many more mechanical components than traditional wet pipe sprinkler systems, the additional valves, air compressors and drains necessitate the need for a greater level of care. According to Agostinho, a dry system malfunction usually occurs one of three ways:

1. A system's air compressor fails to maintain the appropriate air-to-water ratio that keeps the system from filling with water. Such a malfunction can send hundreds of gallons of water rushing into the system’s pipes, which can then freeze when temperatures drop;
2. Oxygen cell corrosion can cause pinhole leaks over time; or
3. A system's low-point drains are not serviced properly, again causing frozen pipe damage.

Property managers and building owners can prevent many potential catastrophes by ensuring that dry systems are properly inspected, tested and maintained each spring.

"I can't tell you the number of times we've conducted an annual dry system test and nothing comes out when we simulate sprinkler water flow through the inspector's test valve," said Agostinho. "Whether it's corrosion damage or a broken part, the source of the malfunction is not easily identifiable. That's why it's important to conduct a thorough evaluation before an emergency occurs."

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