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A Need for Change

In response to legislation, colleges and universities must prepare to install sprinkler systems.

Responding to fire tragedies at colleges and universities, eight states have enacted legislation that requires all residence halls, fraternity and sorority houses, and other student-occupied buildings to be equipped with automatic sprinkler systems. Other states have similar legislation in the works.

According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), about 1,700 fires occur every year in college residence halls, classroom buildings, and fraternity and sorority houses. Fire in on-campus housing facilities has resulted in 32 deaths since 1990, and many more student deaths have occurred in off-campus housing. Of all the campus building fires reported to fire departments, more than 90 percent were in buildings equipped with smoke alarms, but only 27 percent had sprinklers.

As colleges have discovered, costs associated with installing sprinkler systems in existing buildings can be significant. Many states proposing sprinkler legislation recognize the financial burden and are calling for low-interest loans to help defray the cost. Colleges do not have to comply overnight, but in most cases they must complete installation within five years after the law takes effect.

Effecting change

Before selecting a contractor, an institution should hire an engineering firm to study the overall impact, feasibility and cost of installing a sprinkler system. Renovating existing structures to accommodate a sprinkler system requires considerable planning. There is no such thing as a typical retrofit. It is imperative that the school has a clear picture of the overall scope of work required for code-compliant design and installation of a sprinkler system. This information will aid in planning and budgeting, and in securing funding.

The scope of the engineering study should reflect the complexity and size of the structures requiring protection. The study will enable a school to avoid potential code violations and cost overruns. As with any construction project, the later in the process corrections are made, the higher the cost.

An engineering study should provide answers to these four basic questions:

  1. Does the existing water service have the size, capacity and pressure to support a sprinkler system? If the existing service falls short in any of these criteria, new water service may be required. New service may entail utility tap-in fees, excavation or patching or restoring disturbed grounds and structures, in addition to the cost of the piping itself. It may be appropriate to explore the use of water-storage tanks, which can be troublesome to locate on developed sites. A fire pump may be required. The pump alone may cost upwards of $40,000, not including installation and connection. Tanks and pumps take up space, which may be at a premium in an existing facility. The cost of upgrading an inadequate water supply will vary widely depending on the modifications required and the availability or location of the water source.

  2. Will the protected facility have to comply with code requirements more stringent than those in effect when it was built? Codes may require a standpipe system if a structure exceeds building height and area limits that were adopted after the structure was built. Costs will be roughly $5,000 per floor per standpipe required. Where there are standpipes, a fire pump is usually required to supply them, which adds at least another $40,000.

  3. What will a sprinkler system cost? In renovation work, prices can range from $1.50 to $5.75 per square foot of protected area. Larger structures benefit from an economy of scale, while smaller ones entail higher per-square-foot costs.

    Many variables contribute to sprinkler-system cost:

    • Is there adequate space within the structure to permit efficient pipe routing?

    • Is exposed piping permitted?

    • Will work have to be done during the summer, holiday breaks, or other off-hour times to accommodate building occupants?

    • Does the school or the local code permit the use of CPVC pipe?

    • Will the school need to upgrade the existing fire-alarm system or install an entirely new system?

  4. What will project planning and management cost? An experienced fire-protection consultant can make a sprinkler installation project more cost-effective. The consultant can define the scope of work, conduct feasibility studies, submit plans for local permits, prepare construction documentation and schedules, and monitor construction.

Eventually all colleges and universities across the nation will have to install sprinkler systems in student facilities to comply with state fire-safety laws. A properly planned sprinkler installation will not only protect students and other campus occupants, but also will be a selling point to prospective students and their families.

Ellsworth is an associate with Burt Hill Kosar Rittelmann Associates, Pittsburgh.

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