While modern buildings are kitted out with the most amazing array of electrical gadgetry and gizmos one of the most important fittings and fixtures is likely to be the sprinkler system. Like much of the best technology these systems are in fact very simple (and surprisingly old) technologies. One of the earliest is believed to be the system fitted in the 1812 in London’s Drury Lane Theatre Royal. In the nineteenth century the risk of fire breaking out was probably much higher than today – thanks to the reliance on candles, lamps and open fires. In large public buildings with excellent circulation of air the combination could be deadly, and the simple technology used to safeguard the theatre going public at the time has not changed much in the intervening period.
A Damp Performance?
The Drury Lane sprinkler system was a very simple and effective concept. A sealed tank filled with water was connected to a series of pipes that had intermittent holes to release water in the event of a fire. The Drury Lane system was in fact a manual system – it was not designed to operate automatically in the event of a fire but required an operator to activate it. However, the basic principle soon became widespread and systems in which the holes to release the water were plugged with substances that melted when certain temperatures were reached soon became common. Early settings were frequently manufacturing premises in which large open spaces and flammable materials combined to create a potential fire risk. Today public buildings, hotels, apartments and commercial premises are commonly fitted with fire sprinkler systems.
Refining the Technology
In many modern systems the basic principles of fire sprinkler systems have remained the same as in their predecessors. In 1880 a system that utilised a glass bulb filled with material that would expand and shatter the glasses in the presence of fire, was designed and introduced by Henry Parmelee – a US piano factory owner. He fitted the device in his own factory and the basic design underlies many modern systems. The automatic nature of the system meant that these newly designed fire sprinkler systems did not rely on manual operation and also didn’t rely on power systems that could be compromised in the event of a fire. It also means that sprinkler systems only operate where a fire is actually present – as opposed to throughout the whole building – which could be a cause of unnecessary water damage. Today, most systems are fitted directly to mains supply water but principles of operating only when and where a fire occurs remain.
Apart from the obvious safety aspect in relation to the inhabitants of the building – or workers in a commercial setting – sprinkler systems are crucial in protecting a buildings contents and infrastructure. Estimates suggest that in buildings which suffer a fire, those protected by sprinklers are subject to only ten per cent of the losses that buildings without fire sprinkler systems incur. In those buildings with a full protection from sprinklers statistics also indicate that fires are dealt with by the fire sprinkler systems alone in ninety nine percent of cases, with over half of fires being extinguished by four or less sprinklers. Accidental damage from the systems themselves is extremely rare. Figures suggest that inadvertent operation of the systems has a likelihood of only one in half a million, while operation due to defects in the manufacture of the sprinklers is as rare as only one in fourteen million. Given the effectiveness of fire sprinkler systems at saving lives, and property, these small risks are ones that businesses and individuals are likely to continue to be very comfortable with indeed.
About the Author
Nick Thorping is a freelance writer who enjoys exploring the (often surprising) history of familiar technology including fire sprinkler systems.