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October 29, 2007

The History of the Automatic Sprinkler

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The forerunner of the automatic sprinkler first appears in the United States when New England mill owners develop crude, perforated pipe systems to protect their facilities. Although the pipes increase fire protection, they distribute water everywhere (not just on the fire), and the water is delivered by a manually-turned valve requiring someone to be present in order for the system to operate.

1873
Charles E. Buell invents the first sensitive sprinkler (with a fusible element that operates the sprinkler and does not come in contact with the water) that has a deflector to direct the water spray.

1875
Henry S. Parmelee invents the first sprinkler that is used widely by industry. This sprinkler has a brass cap that is soldered over a perforated distributor.

1882
Frederick Grinnell invents a sensitive, metal-disk sprinkler with a toothed deflector that breaks the water into a finer spray.

1890
Grinnell invents the “glass button” sprinkler (closely resembling today’s sprinklers). This sprinkler remains essentially unchanged for several decades.

1940s
Lift trucks become common in warehouses, resulting in the ability to store materials at greater heights. Such industrial advances challenge existing sprinklers.

1953
The first standard sprinklers are installed. The standard sprinkler sprays all of its water downward at the fire (old-style sprinklers sprayed 40% to 60% of the water upward at the ceiling). This new type of sprinkler is developed based on research findings that fire spread along the ceiling is actually reduced when all of the water is sprayed downward.

1960s
Warehouses continue to grow, making it difficult for standard sprinklers to handle fires in large, rack storage arrangements.

1971-1980
FMRC’s research leads to the development of the large drop sprinkler, designed to control high-challenge storage fires. The 0.64-inch diameter orifice of the large-drop sprinkler produces significantly larger water droplets to more effectively penetrate a fire plume. .

1976-1982
The United States Fire Administration (USFA) sponsors several residential sprinkler research programs. These programs determine that a residential sprinkler must respond quickly, while the fire is in its early stages, to maintain a survivable environment. Also, effective control of a residential fire often depends on a single sprinkler operating. The information acquired from this research guides the sprinkler industry to develop effective residential sprinklers.

1983-1988
FMRC conducts its Early Suppression-Fast Response (ESFR) research program, aimed at developing a sprinkler that will suppress a fire (until this time, sprinklers were designed to control fires). Through the 1980s, warehouses begin filling with products made from flammable synthetic materials, and storage heights continue to increase.

1989
The first ESFR sprinklers are approved by FMRC. These sprinklers suppress severe storage fires that are beyond the protection capabilities of even large-drop sprinklers.

1991
FMRC continues studying the effectiveness of ESFR sprinkler systems in even more challenging applications. FMRC anticipates using computer simulation models as the basis for developing early suppression-type sprinklers for broader applications in less challenging fire situations.


This article adapted from Vol. 5 #2.

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