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Painted Sprinkler Heads: A 411

Monday, October 16, 2017  

Painted Sprinkler Heads: a 411

In order to maintain a professional building, owners and management staff allocate significant resources to the upkeep of their buildings. Likewise, many multi-tenant buildings experience continuous occupant transitions, often resulting in renovations needed to fulfill corporate standards for the new tenants.  Throughout this process, a very expensive phenomenon often occurs, one which was never anticipated and certainly never budgeted:  this is the painted fire sprinkler head.

In my experience, painted fire sprinkler heads are one of the most common violations identified on any life safety inspection report. Owners and management staff spend tens of thousands of dollars each year replacing these altered devices.  Once painted, the current adopted NFPA revision no longer allows a cleaning option.  Rather, by code, these devices must be replaced.  Why?  The average citizen would just assume that these heads could just be cleaned in some fashion, but there is resounding reason why this is not allowed any more…It is called safety!

First and foremost, of all the components found within your buildings - the sole component that is truly a life-saving apparatus and property protection device - is the fire sprinkler head.  This device detects heat, and at the appropriate time, activates.  This activation disperses water, and if everything goes as planned, extinguishes the fire.  Altering these heads in any manner truly places your building occupants and the building itself in harm’s way. After painting, the one true life protection device in your building now stands the real possibility of not functioning correctly.  This could result in a delayed activation or no activation, which allows the fire to spread and the damage to increase exponentially.

While the fire sprinkler head has been around for what seems like forever, these devices are fairly sophisticated. Let’s review some sprinkler facts:  

  • Each area of your building is specifically engineered to receive specific types of sprinkler heads depending on occupancy and usage delineations. 
  • Each of these fire sprinkler heads has a colored glass bulb that is the key to the successful operation of these devices.  Each color glass bulb has a specific heat rating. 
  • Once the heat in these areas exceeds the ratings of the glass bulbs, they melt and the sprinkler head is activated.  

The painting of these bulbs (even ever so slightly) prevent the bulbs from melting at the correct degree and can allow a fire to grow stronger and larger before they melt, thus delaying the life-saving characteristics of these devices.  Likewise, if the paint seeps into the crevices of the sprinkler head, the glass bulb may melt, but the deflector may not drop or the sprinkler head may not discharge, as the paint has it stuck in place, rendering the sprinkler head ineffective.  Each of these scenarios costs valuable time and could also result in occupant harm and substantial property damage.

In addition to the primary motives pertaining to compliance and safety, building owners and management staff should also cringe at the idea of trying to clean sprinkler heads for a different, costly result: water damage.  Besides fire, water is one of the most damaging elements you can introduce to your building’s interior.  Many people have come to realize that the expense and effort put into attempts to clean paint off of fire sprinkler heads greatly outweighs the costs of replacing these heads, when the restoration trucks roll in, and the water mitigation begins.  Mitigation and repair costs can be truly staggering. 

So, what measures can building owners and management staff take to avoid painted sprinkler heads?  The first thing is to ensure that your maintenance teams and tenants know that they cannot paint - or have areas painted - in your buildings without your approval and supervision.  Painters should ensure that fire sprinkler heads are appropriately protected before they begin their work.  All sprinkler head manufacturers make head covers that can be used to protect the heads from painting and NFPA also grants the use of other temporary methods depending on the type of sprinkler head to protect from paint.  

If the painters get paint on the glass bulbs, the deflectors or other main components of the sprinkler heads, they should make appropriate notifications and attempts to clean these devices should not be made.  If devices are painted, a qualified fire sprinkler company should be called to correct the situation.  I assure all managers that the costs associated with these corrections and proactive measures are much more economical than dealing with the aftermath of a fallout from the risks outlined above. Firetrol’s Austin office is happy to provide guidance for anyone with questions on sprinklers, suppression, fire alarm & detection, and security by email or phone (512) 687-0115.


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