How Automatic Sprinklers Work

Automatic sprinkler systems supply water to a network of individual sprinklers, each protecting an area below them. These sprinklers open automatically in response to heat and spray water on a fire to put it out or keep it from spreading. Contrary to popular belief, only those sprinklers near the fire are activated and discharge water.

Sprinklers Save Lives

National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) records covering most of this century shows no instances of fires killing three or more people in a house, apartment, hotel, or motel where a complete sprinkler system was installed and operating properly. The NFPA estimates that the risk of dying in a fire is cut by one-half to two-thirds in public buildings – stores, offices, auditoriums, factories – where sprinklers have been installed and in the growing number of private homes equipped with sprinkler systems. Because sprinkler systems reach so early in the course of a fire, they reduce the heat and flames and the amount of smoke produced in a fire. Every life-threatening aspect of a fire is reduced by sprinklers.

Sprinklers Save Property

NFPA Studies show that automatic sprinkler systems also save thousands of dollars in property loss.

Estimated Savings Include:

  • $10,500 per fire in restaurants, nightclubs, and other "public assembly" properties;
  • $7,800 per fire in educational properties;
  • $8,100 per fire in stores and offices; and
  • $16,500 per fire in manufacturing and industrial sites

In addition, a sprinkler system installed in commercial property can pay for itself in as few as five years through reduced insurance premiums.

Sprinklers in the Home

Automatic Sprinkler Systems have been common in factories, warehouses, hotels, and public buildings throughout the 20th century. Since the early 1980s, sprinklers have been more popular in private homes, thanks to revised NFPA standards for installation that have made home sprinkler systems practical and more affordable. Four-fifths of all fire deaths occur in homes, and according to a study by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, 60 to 70 percent of those deaths could be prevented by adding sprinkler systems to houses and apartments. Since 1980, sprinklers have been available specifically for residential use. These systems can be supplied with water through small-diameter piping from a household water supply in a one- or two- family dwellings. Thanks to the use of modern materials and designs, the cost of residential sprinkler systems has come down. Estimates suggest that installing such a system would add one to one-and-a-half percent to the cost of new house. They can also be installed in existing buildings.

Homes with automatic sprinkler systems should also be equipped with smoke detectors. All residents should be familiar with these devices and should have a plan for escape in the event of fire.

Dispelling Myths About Automatic Sprinklers

Despite the proven effectiveness of automatic sprinkler systems in slowing the spread of fire and reducing loss of life and property damage, many people resist the idea of home sprinkler systems because of widespread misconceptions about their operation.

Myth: The water damage from sprinklers is worse than a fire. The truth is, a sprinkler will control a fire with a tiny fraction of the water used by fire department hoses, primarily because it acts so much earlier. Automatic systems spray water only in the immediate area of the fire and can keep the fire from spreading, thus avoiding widespread water damage.

Myth: Sprinklers go off accidentally, causing unnecessary water damage. Accidental water damage caused by automatic sprinkler systems is relatively rare. One study concluded that sprinkler accidents are generally less likely and less severe than mishaps involving standard home plumbing systems.

Myth: Sprinklers are Ugly. Sprinklers don’t have to be unattractive. Pipes can be hidden behind ceiling or walls, and modern sprinkler fixtures can be inconspicuous – mounted almost flush with walls or ceiling. Some sprinklers can even be concealed.