Sprinklers have become a threat to warehousing

NEWS & MEDIA | 29 October 2012

Sprinklers have become a threat to warehousing

Sprinklers have become a threat to warehousing. As Hirim Maxim invented them we should know they are dangerous. After all, he is also the father of the machine gun. It seems that fire regulations around the use of sprinklers are now being enforced. The cost of course will be huge and the benefits questionable.

Mobile racking with sprinkler system
Mobile racking with sprinkler system

As a mobile rack supplier we hoped that SA would follow British sprinkler practice, especially when it comes to freezer stores, but it seems not. Visiting a UK cold store I noticed that one corner of the freezer chamber had been cut off at an angle. As this would have complicated the mobile layout I asked why it had been necessary. The manager’s answer was that access to the back of the facility had to be wide enough for a fire brigade turntable. “Someone might need to be rescued from the engine room roof”, he said. “The alternative would be sprinklers and we don’t want those.” It seems that, in the UK, which is after all Health and Safety Central, if a cold store can show that a fire in the facility will not endanger any surrounding buildings and the buildings have been designed to allow personnel to escape, then sprinklers are not required. As the manager said, “it is better to let the building burn.”In ambient stores above a certain height and depending on the nature of the products stored, in rack sprinklers are sometimes required. Storax mobiles can incorporate these via flexible steel hoses and special sprinkler attachments.

Sprinkler head
Sprinkler head

However, in South Africa the fore authorities appear to have gone overboard. We have just completed a mobile installation in a minus 25 Degree freezer store where in rack sprinklers were non-negotiable. I hope the sprinkler system has an interlock that prevents the flow of water unless there is an additional indication of heat or smoke. Otherwise, a sprinkler head could be knocked off. Ensuing panic will ensure that the freezer store becomes a skating rink and the mobile bases will be locked in place.Another recent cold store project has been forced to install an early suppression fast response (ESFR) sprinkler system which is designed to put a fire out, rather than control it until the Fire Department arrives. The system, of course must be dry, but at least there are no in rack sprinkler heads. The down side is that a broken sprinkler head can deliver 1000’s of litres a minute, so the store will quickly resemble a block of ice. As the local water main cannot be relied upon to supply a sufficient water pressure, two water storage tanks must also be built. One tank should just about half fill the cold store, but the regulations say there must be two. There must also be two delivery pumps, just in case. The net effect of these fire precautions is to make the sprinkler system more expensive than the mobile racking. That’s a lot of money for a system that you hope will never have to work.

Escape route using a rear cantilever
Escape route using a rear cantilever

Ironically we designed a cantilever rack at the back of the mobile bases so as to allow for an escape route, along the lines of the current British practice. But this, it appears, is irrelevant.Before the building of new warehouses is put on hold by the cost of fire suppression systems, can the regulating bodies meet with the cold store and warehouse operators and agree on a reasonable and practical system for fire control which can then be enforced country wide?