There are several possible negative environmental events occurring at a fire scene (whether a single-family home or a factory). Toxic materials may spew into the atmosphere, debris may be added to landfills, and a significant amount of fire-fighting water may be used. This water, whether turned into steam or as runoff, may flow into aquifers, waterways or reservoirs.
There may be an inherent water conservation benefit from having automatic fire suppression. There may also be a positive impact on the atmosphere. Similarly, fires have an impact on the carbon footprint associated with buildings.1 There are many questions regarding exactly where automatic fire protection fits into the green community, and although not all of the questions have answers, these and other questions need to be raised.
THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT IMPACT AND THE NEED FOR "GREEN"
According to the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), the built environment has a major impact on the environment. In the United States alone, buildings account for: 2
- 72% of electricity consumption
- 39% of energy use
- 38% of all carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions
- 40% of raw materials use
- 30% of waste output (136 million tons annually)
- 13.6% of potable water consumption
Fire sprinklers have been stopping fire growth and minimizing greenhouse and toxic gas production for over 130 years. However, they are presently not given any credit in the USGBC's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification program.
Fire in buildings contributes to the production of CO2 and potable water consumption. While the impact of building fires are considered in the code process, they are not addressed in the green process.
Buildings that do not have automatic fire protection can be expected to generate a greater volume of burned materials, which will eventually be thrown into landfills.
New products must be produced to replace the burnt structural material and replace lost commercial equipment, process materials and furnishings. Energy is consumed to manufacture, transport and install the needed replacements. Additionally, not just the burnt material is discarded from a structure involved in a fire. Other materials may also need replacement either due to code or design requirements for the new part of the structure or by insurance and liability-driven issues for the contractor in order to guarantee the new work.
For example, if a roof is damaged by the fire and firefighting operations, the roofer is not just going to patch the hole. The roofer is going to inspect the damage and replace a significant area beyond the damage - or possibly the entire roof - to be able to warranty the work and new material. Exposed neighboring structures may also have radiant heat damage.
Fuel and energy are also consumed by fire apparatus operating at a fire scene, and most fires require multiple fire vehicles. Most fire apparatus use diesel fuel. Diesel fuel not only contributes greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere, but also toxins.3
Automatic fire protection can have a positive impact on the environment. The positive impact can be measured in the avoidance of future negative effects. Just as fire protection can mitigate the effects to local economies after an unwanted fire, fire protection can also positively affect the environment and assist in energy conservation.
FIRE SPRINKLERS AND LEED
Portions of the LEED certification process address the impacts of "material & resources" - such as re-use, recycled content and use of regional materials. However, mechanical, electrical and plumbing components are specifically excluded. Therefore, fire protection system components are exempt from LEED point calculations for materials being used in the project.
Many materials used in the sprinkler industry (e.g., pipe, hangers, fire sprinklers, valves, etc.) are made using recycled materials. CPVC is recyclable.
There is some precedent for using the "innovation in design" section of the LEED checklist to obtain one credit by using fire sprinklers. This section can gain one point more toward the desired level of LEED Certification for exceptional performance above the LEED requirements. To gain this credit, the LEED APwould need to document and apply the strategies and measures of the fire sprinkler concept, including stating the environmental and health benefits.
CREDITS REGARDING FIRE PROTECTION
A project cannot obtain the LEED credit in chapter 4 for having a clean agent fire protection system. Credit is available for not using a HCFC or CFC system in the project. A project can use a CFC system and still obtain a LEED platinum rating; however, this individual credit cannot be claimed in the point scheme.
Having automatic fire protection recognized in the future may not come without some trading. If LEED is to recognize fire sprinklers, the impact of using water during flow tests that must be captured in gray water must be considered. The impact would be reduced if all testing water was supplied from a gray water source.
There is a potential environmental impact of testing of diesel fire pumps and the energy use of electric fire pumps during tests. Many large building projects will use fire sprinklers and the associated equipment needed for a properly operating system. Many projects where a point might be available for automatic fire protection could be smaller projects that would not require a fire pump.
While diesel fire pumps have an associated environmental impact, they could reduce the number of fire apparatus responding and operating at unwanted, uncontrolled fires in structures. NFPA 254 requires a weekly test of at least 10 minutes for diesel fire pumps. An item that should be considered is whether electric fire pumps would be preferable over diesel fire pumps. Electrical fire pumps do not emit exhaust.
The Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition and FM Global teamed up in October 2009 and burned two identical 4.5 m x 6 m (15' x 20') living rooms fully furnished with modern items, one with fire sprinklers and one without. The results show fewer water usage and less gases released in the fire-sprinklered burn as compared to the non-fire-sprinklered burn.5
The fire sprinkler industry plans to work with the USGBC to develop a credit for fire sprinklers in future editions of LEED based on the environmental benefits of sprinkler systems.
A possibility for later consideration is a new credit for material and resources.
Dominick G. Kasmauskas is with the National Fire Sprinkler Association.
- Gritzo, L. et al., "The Influence of Risk Factors on Sustainable Development," FM Global, March, 2009.
- Anonymous, "Green Building Facts," U.S. Green Building Council (undated) Accessed from www.usgbc.org.
- Anonymous, "The Toxic Air Contaminant Identification Process: Toxic Air Contaminant Emissions from Diesel-fueled Engines," California Environmental Protection Agency Air Resources Board (undated) Accessed from http://www.arb. ca.gov/toxics/dieseltac/factsht1.pdf.
- NFPA 25, Standard for the Inspection, Testing, and Maintenance of Water-Based Fire Protection Systems, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA, 2008.
- Wieczorek, C. et al., "Environmental Impacts of Fire Sprinklers," FM Global, Norwood, MA, 2010