Did you know that the concept of fire sprinkler systems has been around for several centuries? That is hundreds of years! The story of the fire sprinkler system starts as far back as the 15th century. Yet they were not widely known or commonplace until the very first patented system was fitted in The Theatre Royal on Drury Lane, London in 1812.
Fire sprinklers have saved countless lives over the years and remain doing so to this very day using on average much less water than that used by a firefighter’s hose.
Fire sprinkler systems are currently used throughout the globe, with over 40 million sprinkler heads fitted each year. Historically used for factories or large commercial properties, these days they are utilised much more widely including in residential properties.
Here we look at a timeline detailing the history of the fire sprinkler system:
15th century AD
It is said that none other than notoriously famed Italian Artist Leonardo da Vinci attempted the first (albeit deemed unsuccessful) attempt at an automated fire sprinkler system as early as the 15th century.
Da Vinci is well known for being one of the most famous painters in history, but during his incredible lifetime he also became widely considered as one of the most diversely talented individuals that ever lived. His ability to create and invent is outlined in the somewhat humorous account below:
One day the Duke of Milan asked Leonardo da Vinci to help his kitchen staff prepare an extravagant meal. Leonardo added a super oven, a conveyor belt for food and a sprinkler system on the ceiling. Unfortunately, the conveyor belt went too fast and the oven became too hot. The heat produced caused the sprinkler to activate. The sprinkler worked too well and drenched the kitchen, ruining the food and causing damage to the interior also.
In 1723 Ambrose Godfrey took the idea of the sprinkler even further creating the first successful sprinkler system.
This device consisted of a liquid-filled cask attached to a gunpowder charge and fuse – I would think this is highly unlikely to pass modern health and safety regulations by any means.
This is a far cry from the automated creation of da-Vinci and involved a manual method of fire suppression. The idea was that one would simply throw the device at the fire! This would result in a gunpowder explosion that would scatter liquid over the fire with the intention of it becoming extinguished.
Amazingly this method later went on to develop an early form of the fire extinguisher.
Nearly 100 years later in 1812 the world’s first modern sprinkler system was installed at The Theatre Royal in Drury Lane, London by British inventor William Congreve. The previous theatre on the same site was burnt down in 1809 with today’s building being reopened in the same year the sprinkler was fitted.
This system involved an airtight reservoir containing approximately 100 tonnes of water. In event of fire, the reservoir would feed into smaller pipes that had been pierced with holes in turn creating a sprinkler effect.
Although this system was deemed a success, unlike Da Vinci’s, it was still no way near the automated systems we see today.
From 1860 onwards inventors started coming up with designs that could be classed as automated and therefore be able to turn themselves on without the use of manual labour.
It was 12 years later in 1872 that Philip W. Pratt of Massachusetts patented the world’s very first automated sprinkler system. It was this patent that would be the very basis of more advanced sprinkler systems soon to be developed.
Just two years later in 1874, Henry S. Parmelee of Connecticut, USA took the patent one step further with a new and improved system. This introduced the ‘the sprinkler head’ thus making Parmelee the inventor of the sprinkler-head system. These sprinkler heads operated on an individual basis. The heat of the fire would shatter a bulb placed within and release liquid.
Parmelee was actually so confident with his invention that he had them installed throughout his very own piano-factory workshop.
Another seven years on and the fire sprinkler system was improved once again by business owner Frederick Grinnell. Grinnell was in fact the owner of the company who manufactured Parmelee’s system. He decided to take it upon himself to design and patent his very own system, which became known as the ‘Grinnell System’ and was famed for its practicality.
Grinnell continued to make developments to his system in a quest to perfect his design for many years to come, leading to the invention of the glass disc sprinkler in 1890, which is essentially the same as the ones used today. In France they even name their sprinklers ‘Le Grinnell’.
Grinnell then went on to make his next major advancement in 1953 when following the Second World War, research by Factory Mutual identified the benefits of replacing the conventional pattern sprinkler with a more effective spray sprinkler system later becoming the industrial standard design.
How do sprinkler systems work today?
Since 1954 the design of fire sprinklers has remained relatively the same, with more focus being put into improving fire safety in general.
As a result, it is safe to say there has been an ever-increasing popularity and usage of the fire sprinkler systems in day-to-day life being deemed a successful method of fire suppression. With thanks to the lobbying by a combination of the National Fire Sprinkler Network, the European Fire Sprinkler Network and The British Fire Sprinkler Network pre-2011, sprinklers started becoming more commonly installed in newly constructed schools, hospitals, hotels and other buildings.
There are several types of fire sprinkler systems in use today. The two most commonly used are the Wet Pipe System and the Dry Pipe System. The way in which these operate have changed little in the past 65 years, still using a combination of Congreve’s ‘holes in pipe’ method and Parmelee’s/Grinnell’s sprinkler and sprinkler-head technology.
Further advances in fire-suppression technology
Over the last couple of decades, the design of the sprinkler nozzle has been re-examined and improved upon even further resulting in the invention of a huge variety of water-mist nozzles.
An introduction to water-mist technology
What is water mist?
A water-mist fire-protection system is a fixed system that discharges an exceptionally fine spray of water droplets. These systems work by propelling water through a specially designed nozzle that breaks the water up into many ‘micro-droplets’, becoming a fine mist. In the event of a fire these water droplets will remove heat and displace oxygen in the air (oxidisation and pyrolysis) thus resulting in the fire being extinguished.
A water mist fire suppression system is a fire protection system that disperses a high-pressure water mist using just a low-pressure water system to control, suppress or extinguish a fire.
The effectiveness of a water-mist system is based on a combination of these key factors:
- The water mist cools both the fire and the surrounding area.
- As water droplets fall, oxygen is removed by evaporating which reduces the radiant heat.
- The vapour forms a cloud which smothers the fire absorbing a large amount of heat.
In October 2013, the National Assembly for Wales passed new regulations that fire-suppression systems be installed in all new and converted flats and houses, and that came into force on 1 January 2016. In 2013 Pennsylvania and California also became the first of the States to ensure fire suppression in residential property mandatory.
Various large incidents such as the immigration fire in Schiphol, Amsterdam in 2015 that claimed 11 lives and The Beverly Hills Supper Club fire in 1977 have had direct effects on the codes and/or standards within the local area by reviewing all the data and detailing mistakes that were made that could have possibly been avoided.
Many countries now have various regulations in place for fire-suppression systems. For example, in Australia sprinklers are only compulsory in all residential properties that exceed 25m (or three storeys) in height. Under Japan’s Fire Services Act, buildings over 31m are classed as high-rises and must meet the various fire-safety regulations, which includes the fact that if a suppression system is installed then fire alarms are not required.
The legal framework surrounding water mist is now catching up with developments on a global basis. However, it is still ultimately fragmented with many countries having varying standards and requirements.
New water-mist technology is now taking a significant market share away from sprinklers in certain market sectors within fire suppression. Due to the more efficient nature of water-mist nozzles, this trend is likely to continue and the industry is set for rapid expansion in the foreseeable future.
In the next issue we will be looking at the process that goes into the manufacturing and installing of water-mist products.
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