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Common Home Fire Sprinkler Questions Answered

Posted by WSRB on June 20, 2014

At WSRB we are committed to reducing losses caused by fire. While we focus most of our business activities on property, we also know that saving lives when a fire occurs is even more important. We’ve discussed home fire sprinklers on our blog before (check out the article here!) but some people have wanted to know more. Are they truly effective? How do they work? Won’t the flood damage cost more than the fire damage? Can my roughhousing kid knock a sprinkler head off and flood my home?


So, first question: are they truly effective? Yes! Check out this fact sheet from the Washington Sprinkler Coalition. Up to 90% of home fires can be contained with just one sprinkler head, and you are 80% less likely to die in a home fire when sprinklers are present.

Second, how do they work? Hollywood will have you believe that to activate a sprinkler system, you must pull some kind of lever on the wall or that smoke from cigarettes (or bad cooking) will deploy every sprinkler in the home and flood all of your belongings, as well as yourself. Not exactly true. Sprinkler heads in all residential, and almost all commercial, applications only go off one at a time (there are exceptions to this in a few commercial systems). When a fire starts the heat will rise to the ceiling. Sprinkler heads have glass bulbs filled with fluid, and when the fluid gets warm it will expand, eventually breaking the glass. A type of stopper plug will then fall out of the sprinkler head, allowing water to come through the newly created hole to be dispersed by the sprinkler head. Only one head will deploy and, as we discussed above, should be enough to contain the fire. If the fire does happen to overwhelm the sprinkler head, the next nearest head will deploy when the heat rises and builds in that area.

Third question: will the flood damage from the sprinkler cost more than the fire damage? Probably not.  Consider this: If a fire starts in your home, perhaps on the stove, and you’re able to put it out with a regular portable fire extinguisher, it won’t get hot enough to activate a sprinkler head. Second scenario, let’s say you start that stove fire, it quickly grows too big to be put out with a portable extinguisher, and you don’t have a sprinkler system. You’ll call 911, the fire department will arrive, and they will flood your home with perhaps as much as 100 gpm (gallons per MINUTE) of water. So your insurance will not only cover the fire and smoke damage, but the water damage as well.  If your fire department has an average response time of 5 to 10 minutes, this is plenty of time for the fire to grow out of control and perhaps even compromise the stability of your home’s structure. A residential sprinkler system flows about 30 gpm and responds within seconds of the fire starting. Much less water and much less fire/smoke damage.

Last question, and perhaps the most pressing: can my kids accidentally knock the sprinkler head off and flood my home? Yes and no. Home fire sprinkler systems (and commercial ones as well) can actually be built to recess into the ceiling. A flat plate is attached to the bottom of the sprinkler head that drops off after the start of a fire. These sprinklers fit flush with your ceiling and are barely noticeable. Other systems, like the one I have in my home, are a traditional style sprinkler head that sits below the ceiling. You will have to be careful not to knock into these, and you certainly don’t want to hang your laundry, or other items, from the bottom of it.

Want to learn more about home fire sprinklers? The Washington Fire Sprinkler Coalition has a 24-ft trailer to give Washington residents more information about home fire sprinklers. This trailer is used for “live burn and sprinkler demonstrations” and contains other educational materials. Look for the trailer at public events around the state and be sure to stop by when you see it! They’re ready and willing to answer any questions you may have about home fire sprinklers.


Article by: Kristen Skinner

Topics: Automatic sprinkler systems, Home Fire Protection