Author(s): Chad Duffy. Published on May 1, 2019.

Keeping up with technology

Electric sprinklers, automated inspection and testing, and more: key changes to the 2020 edition of NFPA 25.


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As a kid, I can remember my parents being meticulous about having the oil in their vehicles changed every 3,000 miles, which at the time was the manufacturers’ recommendation. This maintenance regimen definitely worked in their favor, as I only remember them having two new cars growing up: a red Chevrolet Cavalier station wagon, and a baby blue Buick Regal, each with more than 300,000 miles by the time they were finally retired to the junk yard.

NFPA Conference Sessions
NFPA Conference & Expo, San Antonio, TX, June 17-20, 2019

Data Collection for Inspection, Testing, and Maintenance
Tuesday, June 18, 10:30–11:30 a.m.

Alexandra Norton, Xaap; William Koffel, Koffel Associates; Rodger Reiswig and Terry Victor, Johnson Controls

Connected Technologies for Water-Based Fire Protection Systems
Tuesday, June 18, 2–3:30 p.m.

Christina Francis, Procter & Gamble; Terry Victor, Johnson Controls

Electronic Sprinkler Technology for Warehouse Operations
Tuesday, June 18, 3:45–4:45 p.m.

Alex Riley, Jenna Troio, and Milosh Puchovsky, Worcester Polytechnic Institutet

Sprinkler System Corrosion: The Science, the Challenges, and Solutions
Wednesday, June 19, 8–9 a.m.

David Fuller, FM Approvals; Paul Su, FM Global

NFPA 25-2020, Standard for the Inspection, Testing, and Maintenance of Water-Based Fire Protection Systems: Proposed Changes
Wednesday, June 19, 2–3:30 p.m.

Robert Caputo, Fire & Life Safety America; William Koffel, Koffel Associates

Fire Pump Testing Requirements, Analysis, and Interpretation
Wednesday, June 19, 3:45–4:45 p.m.

Bruce Clarke, AIG


What’s Wrong with This Picture? Water-Based System Deficiencies
Tuesday, June 18, 2:30–3:30 p.m.

Brian O’Connor and Shawn Mahoney, NFPA

Sprinkler System FAQs and Q&A
Wednesday, June 19, 10–11 a.m.

Chad Duffy and Jonathan Hart, NFPA

Similarly, for a water-based fire protection system to last, it needs to be inspected, tested, and maintained regularly. Innovation in fire sprinklers never stops, and neither can the standards and techniques for ensuring they function as intended when called into action. Staying on top of the latest technology is also critical to a properly maintained system.

Over the last several years, several new technologies in sprinkler design and inspection methods, including automated testing, electrically operated sprinklers, and new electric controllers, have kept the technical committee for NFPA 25, Standard for the Inspection, Testing, and Maintenance of Water-Based Fire Protection Systems, busy throughout the last revision cycle. Due to these developments, several key additions to the 2020 edition of NFPA 25 address some of these newer concepts. I’ve outlined some of the most common questions about NFPA 25 that I receive through NFPA’s Technical Questions Service program, followed by the most relevant questions related to the 2020 edition of NFPA 25.

Is NFPA 25 retroactive? Not an uncommon question…

Another way of phrasing the question might be: If I had a water-based fire protection system installed in 1996, am I required to use the current edition of NFPA 25 to perform my inspection, testing, and maintenance (ITM) activities?

Depending on where you are, a specific edition of NFPA 25 may be adopted by your local jurisdiction as the enforceable standard. Regardless, NFPA 25 is written with the intent that the current edition always be applied by those performing ITM activities. These activities are not intended as a review for compliance with an installation standard, but as a review for wear and tear on the system.

Among the updated items in the 2020 edition is one that applies to signage. Starting with the 2014 edition and slightly modified in this latest edition are new requirements for any missing signs—including information signs, hydraulic design information signs, or a list of sprinklers installed in the property—to be posted in the sprinkler cabinet. These signs must be provided whether the standard used for the installation of the system required them or not.

At first glance, these might seem like installation requirements, but through much debate, the technical committee decided that this information is critical and necessary to perform and meet many of the ITM activities outlined in NFPA 25. As you might imagine, producing a missing sign can be labor intensive and can result in a significant expense to an owner—which is why a requirement to provide a missing hydraulic design sign has been one of the most controversial committee debates, one pursued extensively once again this past revision cycle.

Automated inspection and testing

Automated inspection and testing consists of devices and methods that allow inspection and testing activities required by NFPA 25 to be performed from remote or distant locations, eliminating the need for a person to be physically present at the building or facility. Although choosing to equip a building or facility with equipment that can be used to perform automated inspections and testing may have additional upfront costs for an owner, it has the potential to result in substantial savings over the life of the system.

Requirements were first introduced in the 2017 edition to permit this type of inspection and testing, and they have been expanded in the 2020 edition to cover some of the new technology that has been introduced to the industry. This includes a flow switch capable of simulating water flow and identifying that the paddle is present and attached to the flow device without physically flowing any water. In general, automated activities must emulate or meet the intent of the test that would be performed if a person were on-site. Automated inspection and testing equipment can consist of valves with a motorized function capable of opening and closing the valve, cameras for observation, or auxiliary pumps for circulating water, such as those on the side of a system riser capable of circulating water past a flow switch, to mention a few.

Flow switch Panel component that activates a flow switch remotely

NFPA 25 now addresses automated testing procedures for fire protection systems, including this flow switch that can be activated remotely by a separate panel component (right). Photographs: POTTER ELECTRIC SIGNAL COMPANY, LLC

The requirements ensure that the equipment is listed where necessary and that failure of an automated piece of equipment cannot impede the ability of the fire protection system to function unless there is a supervisory signal that identifies an issue, and personnel can be sent to investigate and rectify the problem. A failure must also result in an audible signal.

NFPA 25 has led the charge on automated inspections and testing, and since NFPA 25 does not cover the design and installation of the components used to perform these tests, many of the installation standards have had to play catch-up. The most recent revision cycle added requirements to the 2019 editions of all of the NFPA water-based standards, including NFPA 13, Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems; NFPA 14, Standard for the Installation of Standpipe and Hose Systems; and NFPA 20, Standard for the Installation of Stationary Pumps for Fire Protection.

Electric sprinklers: What will they think of next?

Electric sprinklers are a newly recognized technology in the 2020 edition of NFPA 25, and as a result several new requirements have been generated.

Unlike traditional sprinklers equipped with a thermal response element that activates at a fixed temperature, electric sprinklers are activated by an electric signal sent to an actuator. The actuator releases the mechanisms holding back the water, allowing the sprinkler to discharge. Each sprinkler is equipped with its own detector as the initiating device. When a fire is detected, the initiating device sends a signal to the addressable releasing panel equipped with fire detection and sprinkler selection algorithms. Based on the algorithms, the panel selects the number of sprinklers and which sprinklers to activate. By using a detector as the initiating device, water can be delivered to a fire much sooner than sprinklers equipped with fixed temperature thermal response elements, reducing the number of active sprinklers and thereby increasing water-use efficiency. This technology was developed as another option for addressing high-hazard fires such as those presented by exposed expanded group A plastics, typically found in warehouse storage arrangements.

The 2020 edition of NFPA 25 includes new requirements for electric sprinklers, developed for use in high-hazard storage applications. Photograph: Potter Electric Signal Company, LLC

NFPA 25 leans heavily on the manufacturers’ requirements or ITM activities as they relate to the sprinkler portion of the device. Any ITM activities related to the detection portion would still fall under the ITM requirements in NFPA 72®, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code®, rather than NFPA 25. As this technology is newly introduced into NFPA 25, I suspect that, in the next revision cycle of NFPA 13, we will begin to see requirements proposed for sprinkler system installations similar to the approach used on automated inspection and testing.

Should I open an energized controller?

When dealing with fire pump controllers, electrical safety is not a matter to be taken lightly. Through much debate, the technical committee has determined that the benefit of opening an energized controller to take voltage and ampere readings or to check connections does not outweigh the risks of possible arc flash or shock exposure.

This was in light of the 2017 edition of NFPA 25 already issued with a tentative interim amendment (TIA) on this issue. TIA 17-2 was issued limiting the opening of fire pump controllers. The TIA applied to the 2017 edition, and the 2020 edition of NFPA 25 will only allow the opening of a controller when it can be safely de-energized; once de-energized, the connections can be safely checked.

Additionally, although voltage and ampere readings can no longer be taken internally where a controller is equipped with an external digital readout screen, the voltage and ampere readings can still be taken. The 2020 edition of NFPA 25 also has added requirements for a new controller, where the controller disconnect is located in a separate rated enclosure within the fire pump controller enclosure. This allows the controller to be de-energized so that it can be opened and work can be performed safely. Also, the 2020 edition now clearly states that NFPA 70E®, Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace®, or an approved equivalent must be followed should any work need to be conducted on electrical equipment.

The next time you’re sitting in the auto repair shop waiting for the service on your vehicle to be completed, think about these key takeaways from the 2020 edition of NFPA 25. If you’d like your water-based fire protection system to have as long a life as my parents’ 300,000-mile-plus Cavalier and Regal, your system needs to be maintained properly to function as intended during an emergency. It’s important to stay on top of key changes in the field. The most up-to-date edition of NFPA 25 should be used for all inspection, testing, and maintenance activities, as it will contain the most current information on technology and inspection and testing methods.

CHAD DUFFY is a principal fire protection engineer at NFPA and staff liaison for NFPA 25. Top Photograph: NFPA