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NFPA fire code


BY: Gary T. Smith, PE

When reading newspapers about consumer trends, there are invariably lists claiming the latest "gotta have "em" gadgets. Usually included are cell phones, HD televisions, GPS devices, etc. Although it may be nice to have the hottest item with the slickest features, you typically don't really really "gotta have "em".

The same cannot be said when outfitting equipment in a hard copy record center. There are three items you really need in order to hopfully prevent a catastrophic facility fire event. Sure, there are many others, but these three are definitely required by U.S. building codes and have proven to be highly effictive in recent large-scale test scenarios.

This may seem like a “no-brainer”, but you still hear of facilities (mostly overseas) where sprinklers have not been installed. A properly designed, installed, tested and maintained automatic sprinkler system is a proven technology. As they say in fire fighting circles: “you need to get the wet stuff on the red stuff”.

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Sprinkler Handbook (1) states: “. . . life safety and property protection in buildings are both known to be greatly enhanced by the presence of an automatic sprinkler system. . . Where sprinklers are present , the chances of dying in a fire are reduced by one-half to three-fourths, and the average property loss per fire is cut by one-half to two-thirds, compared to where sprinklers are not present”. The design of a proper automatic sprinkler system is a very complex and arduous task, relying on many factors (not limited to building dimensions, racking type, available water supply, etc.). It is recommended to consult a qualified Fire Protection Professional to walk you through this process, and as early as possible in your record center facility planning.

In 2002, the NFPA Sprinkler Standard (2), was revised to require rack shelves larger than 20 square feet in size to be of “materials more than 50% open”, or otherwise install in-rack sprinklers under the shelves. This change was made to help sprinkler water penetrate rack shelves during a fire event, thus delivering more water onto stored products below to control or prevent further ignition.

Many people, including those in the record storage industry, questioned how water could ever get to the rack shelf material itself, never mind through it, with numerous boxes so tightly packed together. Recent tests at Underwriters Laboratories and Southwest Research Institute using Punch Deck® proved just the opposite. Sprinkler water does in fact penetrate through multiple levels of rack shelves, even when fully loaded with boxes (see photos). This phenomenon can be confirmed by anyone who ever has had a broken pipe on an upper floor in their house – water gets to lower floors - everywhere.

In order for an automatic sprinkler system to function as designed, flue spaces need to be provided and maintained within the rack structure. These “flues” are gaps or openings at predetermined sizes and locations.

“Flue spaces exert two primary influences on fires in racks. Flues allow a fire to spread vertically through a rack, thereby providing a means for heat to rise up through the racks and activate the sprinklers. Flues also provide the path through which water from the sprinklers reaches a fire. Where they exist, flue spaces are to extend vertically through the entire height of the rack.” (3)

There are 2 types of flue spaces. Which type(s) is required is determined by your racking layout. Longitudinal flue spaces run parallel to the rack rows. They can be located between back to back rows in certain configurations or may even be the rack aisles themselves.
Transverse flue spaces are usually located at every rack upright and run perpendicular to the rack rows. A nominal 6” space is typically required - with the rack upright itself accounting for 3”.

As seen in the photo at right from a recent large-scale fire test, the transverse flue space provided in the rack structure functioned precisely as the designers had predicted. The flue space allowed for water to cascade down from open sprinkler heads above. This not only helped to extinguish the flames, but also provided for “pre-wetting” of the boxes in the next bay, thus preventing lateral spread of the fire.

Maintaining transverse flue spaces can be a challenge for record center warehouse staffs, especially over time as boxes are rotated or change shape with age. DACS offers a cost effective, easily installable solution called FlueKeeper® . These steel bars are inserted into your rack posts with a spring loaded mechanism. No tools or hardware are required and they can be put in either before or after boxes are loaded . To eliminate “housekeeping” duties and satisfy fire inspector criteria, consider FlueKeepers for your rack storage system.

1. National Fire Protection Association, Chris Dubay PE, “Automatic Sprinkler System
Handbook, 2002”

2. National Fire Protection Association, “NFPA 13 Installation of Sprinkler Systems
2002 Edition”

3. The Fire Protection International Consortium, Inc. “Report on Large-Scale Fire Test of
Paper Based Records in Rack Storage”, October 3, 2007

punch deck and fluekeeper for fire code compliance