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Fire Safety Challenges Associated With Water Conservation Measures in Australia
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Issue 86: Fire Safety Challenges Associated With Water Conservation Measures in Australia

By Andre Mierzwa

Conservation of natural resources is a concern globally, and water is a high priority. Societal demand for water came to roost in Australia during a protracted countrywide drought, which started in 2006 and was officially declared ended in 2012 (when drought relief funding ceased).


Australia, renown as the driest continent in the world, relies almost entirely on rainwater captured in reservoirs as the primary source of potable water for all its major and minor population centers. As populations grew, there were no additional dams built — for environmental and political reasons — creating a finite and subsequently dwindling resource, a realization that shook the country when the drought hit.


Within that first year, water storage capacities dropped for all population centers. Typical was levels were 27% of full capacity in Melbourne and 15% in Brisbane. Many regional centers, with limited storage capacity, were down to 5% or less. See Figure 1.


Figure 1 - A Depleted Reservoir During the Drought

Urgent action was required. Country-wide water conservation initiatives, coupled with water use restrictions, were initiated. Many projects linked major city water sources to smaller, regional systems with interconnecting pipelines. All mainland capital cities started building desalination plants, with the one in Melbourne being one of the world's largest. Today, however, all except for Perth are in standby mode, but the supplemental resource is in place when needed in the future.


Although there were no legislative requirements on commercial or industrial property owners or the fire protection industry to reduce or minimize water usage when conducting system testing and maintenance, the pressure was certainly on to do something. A common occurrence saw employees complain to management when they saw thousands of liters of fire system test water going down the drain while these employees used buckets at home to capture shower water for their gardens.


In response, the fire protection maintenance and testing part of the industry took it upon themselves to minimize the loss of test water by capturing it in portable tanks or tankers for reuse, primarily on public gardens. See Figures 2-4. They also restricted the length of time water was flowed in each test, went to monthly testing (where weekly testing was contracted), and modified systems to divert test water back into suction tanks or installed tanks for recycling the water.


Figure 2 - Recirculation Test Tank on a Town Main
Booster Fire Pump Installation

Figure 3 - Measuring Hydrant Flow and
Capturing the Water During a Test.

Figure 4 - Transferring Hydrant Test Water To Trailer Tank For Garden


 Water authorities around the country were also at the forefront in water conservation initiatives. They saw an opportunity to simultaneously reduce water consumption and preserve aging infrastructure through pressure management programs, with very good results on both counts. These water management programs frequently involved reducing the pressure in water mains.


However, the various pressure management programs took different approaches when it came to the impact on installed fire protection systems. Some authorities consulted widely and did their own surveys to identify potentially impacted systems. Others notified property owners about the water conservation program and left them to their own devices. Unfortunately, in most cases the person who was notified had no knowledge that this would impact their fire protection systems.


The costs for upgrading fire protection systems were not compensated by the water authorities since their charter did not include any provision for providing fire fighting water supplies. Fortunately, some water authorities limited pressure reduction programs to primarily residential areas and bypassed major commercial and industrial areas, but others did not.


In nearly all cases, it was up to the fire protection industry to identify impacted systems and to work with building owners and occupiers to rectify the deficiencies. In most cases, this resulted in either upgraded fire pumps or the installation of new pumps and tanks.


During this period, the fire protection industry was also deep in the process of revising a number of fire protection standards, including the Australian Standard for the routine service of fire protection systems and equipment,1 and incorporated many water saving features into that standard. The industry also collaborated with Standards Australia to produce the Fire Protection Systems Testing – Water Conservation Handbook.2 This handbook evaluated maintenance testing that involved flowing water to provide estimations of water usage as well as options available for saving water and the savings that could be achieved by incorporating the options presented.


Many water authorities have since taken the stance of not allowing fire pumps to draw directly from the town mains. Those water authorities that do permit fire pumps to take suction from city mains have placed specific requirements on those connections, like the installation of recirculating test tanks for flow testing. Water metering of fire services that were previously unmetered are now becoming the norm and creating an incentive to introduce water saving measures for maintenance testing.


Overall, pump and tank installations are frequently the only alternative for a fire protection water supply for new industrial and commercial projects. In some cases, it is used to provide a separate hydrant system fed from the town main; however, the lessons learned during the drought have been embedded into fire protection installation standards, maintenance standards, and in water supply connection requirements.


Andre Mierzwa is with FM Global

  1. AS 1851, Routine Service of Fire Protection Systems and Equipment, Standards Australia, Sydney, 2012.
  2. HB 233, Fire Protection Systems Testing - Water Conservation Handbook, , Standards Australia, Sydney, 2008.

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