Libraries – why sprinklers prevent water damage

Business Continuity Management Overview
November 16, 2016
Business Continuity and Recovery
November 16, 2016
Business Continuity Management Overview
November 16, 2016
Business Continuity and Recovery
November 16, 2016

Libraries – why sprinklers prevent water damage

Paper based documents and books make up the bulk of the holdings of libraries. The paper used in documents and books in libraries has been produced at different times and therefore, been manufactured using a variety of techniques and ingredients. Paper composed of cotton was used for writing and book printing until the end of the 19 th century. Low-grade cellulose paper, such as newsprint, which has high wood pulp content, has been used in more recent times.

Paper based documents can ignite from open flames (e.g. from sparks caused by defective electrical wiring, or a carelessly thrown match or cigarette). The chances that the documents will ignite depend on the intensity and duration of the heat released from the source of the flame.

When fires ignite and are allowed to burn uncontrolled, large losses can occur. Examples are as follows:

1986 – Los Angeles Public Library – 400,000 books destroyed

1988 – Biblioteca Academia Naulc (BAN), Russia – 400,000 books destroyed

1999 – University of Lyon Library, France – 350,000 books destroyed

2004 – Duchess Anna Amalia Library, Germany – 30,000 books destroyed

2004 – Ramsgate Library, United Kingdom – thousands of books destroyed

There are basically two types of damage that result from these fires:

  1. Material loss of the collections and perhaps the building
  2. Social damage

The cost of restoring documents and books damaged in a fire is substantially greater than what would be spent to store the materials under the best fire protection conditions. For the loss of irreplaceable information, there is no remedy; only the untold damage to society caused by its loss. While it is not possible to assure total fire protection of records and books in libraries, it is possible to provide a very high level of fire protection that would limit the potential loss of records to a small amount.

The belief of some is that sprinklers are a greater hazard than fire. Up until the early 1960’s, this view was reinforced by documents such as the American Library Association’s book on fire protection, which advised against sprinklers. It is now recognized by people active in preservation that water damage can be avoided by freezing the books. Fire damage to books, on the other hand, is largely irreversible.

When automatic sprinklers are not used, responding fire fighting forces have no choice but to attack the fire with fire hoses. The quantity of paper fuel involved is such that the fire department would have to fight the fire from a distance under very adverse conditions. This would normally force them to use heavy hose streams having the characteristics of a hydraulic ram. Wide and forceful disruption of the records storage arrangements would be a normal effect of efforts to prevent total destruction. Fire fighters may also take actions that disrupt and damage records that are not burning in order to reach the actual seat of a fire.

Installation of a sprinkler system of adequate design changes the role of the fire department to one of assisting and supplementing the automatic sprinkler system, rather than direct water attack. Four facts should dispel the thought that these systems cause additional water damage:

  1. Sprinklers actually constitute a method of fire control involving a minimum rather than maximum quantity of water.
  2. Each sprinkler operates individually and the operation of any one does not cause the operation of any other sprinkler; therefore, only those sprinklers in the heat of the fire operate and discharge water.
  3. Wet records are recoverable, burned records are not.
  4. The probability of sprinkler operation at a time when no fire exists is minimal.

The most reliable of all sprinker systems is a wet-pipe system. A wet-pipe system is one where the overhead pipes are filled with water and the system is always ready for operation.

To alleviate the fear amongst some of accidental water damage to irreplaceable and valuable materials, more complex sprinkler systems and gas based systems have been chosen to protect rooms where these materials are stored.

Pre-action sprinkler systems are systems where the overhead pipes are normally dry. A supplemental fire detection system must be installed in the same area as the sprinklers. Activation of this supplemental fire detection system releases a valve that allows water to fill the pipes, essentially converting the system to a wet-pipe system. Water is not released until a sprinkler head is activated. This type of system minimizes the possibility of accidental water damage due to sprinkler pipe or head being mechanically damaged. However, since a pre-action system is dependent upon a supplemental fire detection system to get water into the pipes, and has other moving mechanical parts, it requires much more maintenance and therefore its reliability in a fire situation, while very good, is not as high as the simple wet-pipe system.

Gas-based systems are typically used for protecting the contents of a tightly sealed room that can contain the gas once it is discharged. Any breach to the room, e.g. an open door or window, operating ventilation system, wall/floor openings around pipes or conduit, etc., will allow the gas to escape and void its usefulness in extinguishing fire. Through the 1980’s “Halon” was the only gas that was “safe” for use around people and collections. Halon was found to cause serious damage to the ozone layer, however, so further production was banned worldwide. Several replacement gases e.g. FM-200® and Inergen® have been developed and are available, although none of them can be used as drop-in replacement for Halon. The new gases can provide an effective and “clean” method to control fire in an enclosure, as long as the system is properly designed, tested and maintained. The drawbacks to these systems include: a limited amount of agent; they must be adequately confined within the room of discharge; the discharge velocity of the gas must be considered (most systems are capable of blowing objects about the room); they require above average maintenance; and they do not protect the building structure.

Many building and fire codes now require installation of sprinklers because of their proven life safety capabilities. The advantages to installing a sprinkler system in a library are summarised as follows:

  1. Minimise fire damage to the building and its contents
  2. Drastically reduce water damage resulting from the fighting operations
  3. Prevent injury or loss of life
  4. Proven reliability

This article has been reproduced with the permission of Canadian Universities Reciprocal Insurance Exchange (CURIE).


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