#125 – Fire Sprinkler Systems on College Campuses

by Will Strickler

campus safety photo Fire sprinkler systems on college campuses are crucial in protecting the lives of students and faculty, along with physical property, in the event of a fire. Therefore, the inspection, testing and maintenance of these systems should be monitored on a regular basis, just as they are in hospitals and nursing homes. College campuses consist of many types and sizes of buildings. Many campuses now have high rises where people not only work and attend class, but also socialize and reside. People inside these buildings are not typically thinking about a potential fire or concerned with the fire sprinkler systems being in working condition. It is for these reasons that our job as inspectors, testers and maintenance workers of these systems is not just important, but vital. It is for the safety of others that we must be on top of our craft while performing inspection, testing and maintenance activities.

Visual inspections of fire sprinkler systems

Visual inspections of fire sprinkler systems are very significant to the proper operation and prevention of an accidental activation. NFPA 25 2017 edition section states, “Sprinklers shall be inspected from the floor level annually. Any sprinkler that shows signs of any of the following shall be replaced: leakage, corrosion detrimental to sprinkler performance, physical damage, loss of fluid in the glass bulb heat-responsive element, loading detrimental to sprinkler performance and/or paint other than that applied by the sprinkler manufacturer”. Visual inspections can be time consuming, as well as troublesome, but access to every room is a must. Fire Sprinkler Head used to hang picture For example, we have all seen those signs beside sidewall sprinkler heads, stating “Do Not Hang Hangers Here”; however, it is our experience that college students are notorious for using fire sprinkler heads for the wrong purposes. We have seen students using fire sprinkler heads to hang a hammock, clothing lines, holiday decorations and even model planes. There have been instances where cabinets and bookshelves are put in front of the heads causing an obstruction to the spray pattern. Fortunately, a lot of schools have begun to incorporate fire protection system awareness into their fire safety training for all students on campus. While this can help improve many issues we have found over the past years, the visual inspection by professionals is still required to establish proper operation of the fire sprinkler systems on campus.

Campus buildings with fire sprinkler systems will need inspection and testing performed at different prescribed intervals, as per the appropriate standard, to verify that the system is operating as it is designed to from the time of installation. Performing tests allows the inspector to see all the moving parts of the system and see if any unusual issues appear.

Campus Fire Sprinkler tests help detect potential problems

A couple examples of tests that can help detect potential problems:

  • Main drain test

  • Valve status test


The tests are almost identical. Main drain tests are conducted at each water supply lead-in to check for any major reduction in waterflow to the system. The valve status test, which was introduced in 2014, now states in NFPA 25 2017 edition section, “A valve status test shall be conducted any time the control valve is closed and reopened at system riser”. This is intended to verify the control valve has not been left fully closed. These are two tests that cannot be stressed enough regarding importance and the need to perform them. In my experience, we have replaced six butterfly control valves over the last two years on our campus due to the valve becoming stuck in the closed or partially closed position after a pin had broken inside the valve. The handles and indicator would operate but the valve itself would not open or close. In a case like this, inspection and testing helped diagnose an issue that may have otherwise gone undetected. A closed supply valve that is supposed to be open is one of the worst things that can happen to a sprinkler system. Another test that is important, but at times overlooked, is spelled out in NFPA 25 2017 edition section, “Where required by this section, sample sprinklers shall be submitted to a recognized testing laboratory acceptable to the authority having jurisdiction for field service testing”. When these heads reach the designated time frames, we need to make sure that these tests are being performed and sent off for testing. Each one of the previous tests mentioned, and the many more we need to perform on any given system, has a purpose and are equally important to verifying the system operates as it is designed. Furthermore, these inspections and tests help identify potential problems that may have arisen since the last test or inspection.

Deficiencies found in Campus fire sprinkler systems

Deficiencies are problems found with the sprinkler system during the inspection and testing routines. Depending on the severity of the issues found — these deficiencies would fall into one of three categories:

  • Non-critical – it shouldn’t affect the system at all

  • Critical – it has the potential to affect the system

  • Impairment – a part of the system or the whole system is out of service


Regardless of the type of the deficiency it will need to be corrected. Therefore, if a component is installed on the sprinkler system — it is supposed to work as specified. There have been several dry systems we have come across on campus where the accelerators, installed to accelerate water delivery, were closed or bypassed. While these can be troublesome, they too need to be maintained and working properly.

Maintaining Campus Fire Sprinkler Systems

Maintenance can be anything from replacing an illegible or missing hydraulic data placard to replacing a dirty or damaged sprinkler head. The integrity of a fire sprinkler system is non-existent if it is not properly maintained. Even though most of the maintenance sections within the NFPA 25 are some of the shortest sections, some of the most important crucial information can be found in them. For instance, NFPA 25 2017 edition section declares, “Hydrants shall be lubricated annually to ensure that all stems, caps, plugs, and threads are in proper operating condition and section”. Lubricating hydrants is a valuable maintenance task that will help keep the hydrant operational and ready to use when needed.

Not everyone follows the NFPA 25, be that as it may, maintenance of these systems is still pertinent to allow the sprinkler systems to function as they are intended. Without following the NFPA 25 you would need to use another approved standard or the manufacturer’s instructions while performing maintenance tasks.

Let’s make sure our inspection, testing and maintenance activities are on point and performed with the utmost attention in those college campus buildings that have fire sprinkler systems, especially dormitories, where students are most vulnerable. It falls on us, as fire protection contractors, to perform our duties and ensure these systems work to keep people safe.

To learn more about Campus Fire Safety, visit: http://www.lifesafetyforum.org/.

Will Strickler has 14-years’ experience in the Fire Sprinkler Industry. He is a Facilities Management Technician at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and an Instructor for Fire Tech Productions.