By Ronald L. Geren, AIA, CSI, CCS, CCCA, SCIP

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the automatic fire sprinkler system. In 1806, an Englishman by the name of John Carey, developed the first automatic fire sprinkler system by connecting a series of perforated pipes to an elevated water tank. The water, under pressure due to the tank elevation, was held in place by closed valves. Combustible cords connected to weights held the valves closed. When a fire would burn through the cords, the weights would drop, opening the valves, thereby allowing water to enter the perforated pipes and extinguishing the fire. Crude, but it was only the beginning.

Although the first sprinkler head was invented in 1864 by Major Stewart Harrison of London, the first practical modern sprinkler head was developed ten years later by Henry Parmelee of New Haven,

Connecticut. Upset with the extremely high insurance rates of the time, Henry Parmelee developed his sprinkler head to protect his piano factory rather than pay for insurance coverage. Later, he teamed up with Frederick Grinnell, who owned a steam and gas plumbing company at the time, to install the sprinkler systems in other factories at their request. Over 130 years later, the automatic fire sprinkler system remains the leader in fire protection systems.

The success of automatic fire sprinkler systems created another problem: consistency in installation.

To resolve this problem, a group of men, the majority of which represented insurance companies, gathered in Boston in early 1895 to discuss this very issue. Later that year, they met again in New York, and the beginnings of a new sprinkler standard, and an association to maintain this standard, started to develop. By March of 1896, they developed a set of sprinkler installation rules and set in motion the development of an organization to administer them.

In November 1896, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) was organized, and the sprinkler installation rules eventually became known as NFPA 13, Installation of Sprinkler Systems. Although

NFPA 13 has become THE standard for sprinkler systems, many people don’t really understand when fire sprinkler systems must be installed.

NFPA 13, or amended versions of it, has been referenced in the building codes for many years, as well as its sister document, NFPA 13R Installation of Sprinkler Systems in Residential Occupancies Up to and Including Four Stories in Height. It wasn’t until the publication of the 2000 International Building

Code (IBC) that the third fire sprinkler standard, NFPA 13D Installation of Sprinkler Systems in One- and

Two-family Dwellings and Manufactured Homes, was referenced in a building code. Although the standards establish how the sprinkler system is to be installed, it doesn’t dictate the conditions when a sprinkler system is required to be installed—that’s left to the building code, or, in some case, local ordinance, which will be discussed later.

In the IBC, there are two ways that fire sprinklers may be required in a building: through either a direct requirement and or an indirect requirement. A direct requirement is one that the designer has little to no control over such as one based on an occupancy group. On the other hand, an indirect requirement is one that the designer does have control over, such as allowable building area and occupancy separations.


Article published on The Code Corner. Vol. 18. Issue July 2006

"We do it the SMART way"