Gravity tanks and fire sprinklers

July 1, 2014 -

If inspected and maintained properly by building owners, gravity tanks can effectively provide water supply for fire sprinkler protection in buildings for many years as evidenced by older buildings that continue to use gravity tanks. However, the frigid cold of this past winter in the Midwest presented unique challenges to owners of older buildings where some tanks began to leak or shift and had to be removed.

Nearly a century ago, gravity tanks for fire suppression sat atop what were then considered industrial or light industrial buildings where full-time building engineers were available to conduct inspections. Since then, many of those buildings were converted to offices and no longer have dedicated building engineers. Typically, a property manager splits his/her time among numerous facilities, leaving little time for gravity tank inspections. The lack of established inspection schedules is the reason some tanks failed this past winter.

"A sprinkler system is only as good as its water source," said United States Alliance Fire Protection's (USAFP) Matt Campbell. "If a gravity-tank-fed system is over 100 years old and failing, then something must be done to keep the fire sprinkler system in operation."

In places such as Chicago, city officials recently have announced increased enforcement of frequent inspections. Inspections must be done weekly to ensure the structural integrity of the tank, support frames, and the building itself. Tanks must be inspected internally every few years, but other visual inspections must be done more often, such as examining metal support frames for corrosion.

Removing a gravity tank does not need to be a stressful project. To start the process, a property manager hires a gravity tank demolition team. If the building is landmarked, a special permit will be needed. Property managers can rely on USAFP to handle the rest of the project, making sure the fire sprinkler system remains in operation.

While the gravity tank is being removed, USAFP works with the property manager to retrofit incoming water service, electrical service for a fire pump, and the fire pump to continue providing fire suppression to the building.

"Once the fire pump is installed, it must be inspected annually along with the fire sprinkler system. However, that's much less often than the weekly inspections required for a gravity tank. That leaves the property manager more time to do other business," said Campbell.

Even in a fully occupied building, the retrofit process is minimally disruptive - the majority of the work is done outside the building and in the basement.

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