Sprinkler systems vulnerable to extreme cold

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Marcia Nelesen
Monday, January 27, 2014

JANESVILLE--The Janesville Fire Department is warning property owners that recent extreme cold has caused an unprecedented number of breaks in water sprinkler systems and could cause more if precautions are not taken.

Sue North, Janesville fire marshal, said four large facilities and at least half a dozen smaller ones recently experienced sprinkler system problems, including Kmart and a vacant commercial space next to Target.

“We typically don't see very many breaks,” North said.

Water can cause major damage when it thaws in a burst pipe inside ceilings and walls, ruining drywall, carpeting and merchandise.

One facility is still undergoing repairs. Kmart's sprinkler system is still off line, so the store is under 24-hour fire watch, North said. That means someone must walk through the building to watch for smoke or fire.

Firefighters have responded to some of the sprinkler system pipe breaks because the leaks set off automatic alarms. Some property owners have called the fire department about sprinkler system problems, and North follows up those calls with visits.

North suspects other businesses have had burst pipes but simply repaired their sprinkler systems without notifying the fire department.

Sprinkler systems in commercial and multi-unit apartment buildings are more vulnerable to freezing because the water does not move through the pipes.

Insulation can shift or settle and expose pipes to the cold or new cracks can form and allow cold air to infiltrate.

Fortunately, the owners and staff of the affected buildings are aware of the importance of their sprinkler systems and understand extra precautions are needed while they are repaired, North said.

Because of the cooperative effort, there have been no fires at buildings with disabled sprinklers.

“The business have been very cooperative,” North said. “We really appreciate their efforts.”

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