Author(s): Brian OConnor. Published on November 1, 2020.

In Compliance | NFPA 13

Alcohol-based hand sanitizer, part II: sprinkler protection for bulk quantities


Alcohol-based hand sanitizer has been an important tool in preventing the spread of COVID-19, but this flammable liquid can be hazardous when stored in large quantities. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends consumers use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol. With flashpoints typically around 63°F, NFPA 30, Flammable and Combustible Liquids Code, classifies these liquids as Class IB flammable liquids.

Because of the increased demand, many types of occupancies may find themselves in need of a larger-than-usual storage of hand sanitizer. It is important to understand the protection criteria required for varying quantities and methods of sanitizer storage.

When determining when and how to protect the storage of hand sanitizer, it is important to gather information to allow you to make the correct design decisions. First, it is important to know which standards to follow. If you are dealing with a mixture that is less than 20 percent alcohol, NFPA 13, Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems, contains all the requirements you need to follow. If it is above 20 percent alcohol, then you will need to consult NFPA 30.

To determine design criteria, you will first need to know how much hand sanitizer is being stored. It is important to note that the quantity of sanitizer stored does not include sanitizer that is in use, such as the liquid contained in wall-mounted dispensers. Requirements for the use and storage of small quantities of sanitizer can be found in NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®. If the quantity is more than 5 gallons, it needs to be protected in accordance with NFPA 30.

You also need to know how the sanitizer is being stored: in racks, palletized on shelves, or stacked. You also need to be aware of what containers the sanitizer is stored in, since they can vary greatly; examples of acceptable container material include metal, plastic, and glass. The material the container is made of will also dictate the volumetric size of the container that the hand sanitizer can be stored in. A complete list of acceptable containers is located in section 9.4.1 in NFPA 30.

Once you know the storage details, you can use the concept of maximum allowable quantities (MAQ) to determine how to protect it properly. MAQ is the amount of hazardous materials that may be stored, used, or dispensed within a single control area. If you use a flammable liquids storage cabinet, then the MAQ increases 100 percent. The MAQ increases another 100 percent if the storage is in an area where sprinklers are installed. These increases are cumulative with each other as well, which means if you have a starting MAQ of 120 gallons of a Class IB liquid in a storage cabinet that is sprinkler protected, the MAQ increases to 480 gallons. It is also important to note that Class 1 liquids are not allowed to be stored in a basement and that large quantities of flammable liquids will require spill containment. Additionally, certain occupancies, such as business and educational, have special MAQ requirements are much more restrictive in the quantity of liquid allowed.

In NFPA 30, Chapter 16 contains several flow charts that will help users determine what fire protection design criteria and schemes are needed. NFPA 30 allows fire protection to be provided by a sprinkler system or a foam-water sprinkler system.

Alcohol is considered a water-miscible liquid since it mixes easily with water. According to the tables in Chapter 16 of NFPA 30, water-miscible liquids in metal containers that are less than 50 percent alcohol can be treated as Class III commodities, and if they are less than 20 percent alcohol they can be treated as Class I. Since hand sanitizer is usually above 60 percent alcohol, these generalizations don’t apply. Instead, NFPA 30 points you to tables within Chapter 16 based on the type of metal container and whether it is being protected with a sprinkler or foam-water sprinkler system. In these tables you will find maximum storage height, maximum ceiling height, required aisle width, and required sprinkler arrangement, as well as whether in-rack sprinklers are required. A similar method can be followed for nonmetallic containers.

It is important to understand that sprinkler systems are designed to protect against certain hazards, and that increasing those hazards can cause your fire protection system to be overwhelmed. This issue can be addressed by developing a change management plan that triggers safety and compliance reviews when certain changes occur.

Although NFPA 13 usually contains all of the requirements for the installation of sprinkler systems for the storage of flammable and combustible liquids, NFPA 13 and NFPA 30 also work in harmony to help ensure sprinkler systems are designed in a way that can help save people and property

Brian O’Connor is a fire protection engineer at NFPA. NFPA members and AHJs can use the Technical Questions tab to post queries on NFPA 13 at