Warehouse Specific Considerations: Fire Suppression

The Logistics of Leasing

Fire suppression is a lump sum category for all of the ways in which building fire life safety systems work to prevent, provide time for evacuation from, and extinguishment of fires. Warehouses have different considerations than office space because there are less people, more cubic volume and different materials. You need to take into consideration what materials you are storing, how high you plan to store them, what kind of racking system you plan on using, the buildings existing fire suppression system and fire exits at a minimum.

When it comes to what you are storing in your warehouse, fire suppression experts refer to this as your commodity class. Fire authorities and county regulations have a scale to classify each commodity class. The more you delve into fire suppression systems and commodity classes, the more it can be surprisingly challenging to take what is happening within a warehouse and fit it neatly within one of five categories.

  • Class one commodities include non-combustibles.
  • Class two commodities include crates and boxes made of wood, cardboard cartons.
  • Class three commodities include wood, paper, and natural fiber products.
  • Class four commodities include Group A plastics which covers most types of consumer items like toys, bottles, home goods,
  • Class five commodities include Group B plastics that are softer and more pliable like tubing and nylon materials. Group C plastics include PVC and melamine plastics. Plastic specific concerns revolve around: how hard it is to ignite, the chemicals released when burned, and the speed with which it burns.

There is a cottage industry made up of mainly ex-firefighters that provide consulting for companies and help them obtain high pile permits. The reason that ex-firefighters are in this industry is because they were the ones that used to perform the inspections and deal with the city but from the other side of the counter, so to speak. Their specialty is assisting companies in classifying their commodity class, ensuring their warehouse existing sprinkler system is sufficient to store goods above 12′, and to secure the high pile permits necessary to get the company’s certificate of occupancy from the city.

This process isn’t always difficult. When a company specializes in a limited number of products and stores them in a uniform manner, then the fire authority can simply classify these commodities and compare them to the warehouses fire suppression system. They will check the boxes, submit the approval and you will be approved to operate your business.

In other cases, the classification process is complicated. For example, most people have seen mobile storage containers in their neighbors’ driveways when they are moving houses. One of the most common companies is called PODS. This company will pick up your mobile storage unit and then store it within their warehouse until it is time to take it to your new house for you to unload. One POD might have 10 surf boards whereas another might have 2 double beds and a couch. TV’s, mattresses, and couches represent some of the items that have flammable materials that can be concerning to fire authorities. The PODS company might have 200 of these mobile storage units in their warehouse at any given point in time and never see the inside of a single one. You can imagine how it would be difficult of the Fire Marshall to classify these types of operations. Increasingly they are becoming more conservative and sorting them into higher commodity classes.

Each commodity class rating has different real-world implications. With each rise in classification, the lower you must store your materials on your racking system, and/or the higher the sprinkler requirements you must have. You might only be allowed to store specific materials in certain parts of the warehouse and only stack them on the floor.

When it comes to fire sprinklers, most people will tell you to just look at the fire riser, that big red pipe in the back inside wall of the warehouse and look for the sprinkler calculations on the silver tag. Sprinkler calculations will give you a gallon per minute numerator over a square footage denominator. Standard calculations are “unrated” for older systems, .45/2,500, .66/3,000, and ESFR, which stands for Early Suppression Fast Response. The idea here is that a certain amount of water flows out of the sprinkler heads, which disperse water over a specific size diameter of square feet. It is not uncommon to find that there is no recognizable sprinkler calculation present. The system might predate the rating system, the tag may have fallen off, the rating is illegible, or someone else painted over it.

Less commonly known factors that can play a pivotal role in your ability to operate your business are the thickness of the water lines, the sprinkler water pipe pattern, the water pressure coming into the building and the quantity and location of the fire riser(s).

If you have a mismatch between your commodity class and the existing fire suppression system, you have a few choices on how you can rectify the situation. You can negotiate with the landlord for a fire sprinkler system’s upgrade. After all, it might be your company that needs the update to do business today, but it is the landlord’s building that will now be better equipped to lease to future companies like yours. You can speak with your material handling vendor and see if there is a different way to arrange your inventory to comply with the existing building conditions. If neither are successful, you can cross the building off of your list and move on.

Each fire sprinkler upgrade is unique. You might replace the sprinkler heads, replace the sprinkler pipes with a thicker gauge pipe in a grid pattern, and/or install a pump to increase the pressure. The total cost for a project like this typically range in the $250,000-$300,000 on a 100,000 SF industrial building in Orange County, CA.

The best time to perform this upgrade is before you move into your building. Many people move into a building and figure this out when the fire department inspects their building. Others may not need it until they have grown into the building and start racking higher. It is possible to perform this upgrade in sections of the building after moving in, but this is less than ideal. The size of the sections in a phased installation would depend on how many risers there are, how the existing system is set up, and the new system design.

If you don’t know what kind of system you have, there are no markings on the fire riser, and there are no plans for the building, you wouldn’t be the first. Incomplete information is more common than you might think. The reason this is the case is that buildings will have different owners over time. Each different owner has different tenants over the years, and there are rarely all of the historical plans transferred between landlord and tenant and from one landlord to another. One building might have had plans, but the tenant made the last improvements and never gave the plans back. The seller might not have given the plans to the buyer. There is a myriad of reasons this might be the case.

Calling the city and asking them for the building plans is your first path to try to find drawings for the building that include sprinkler design and calculations. You may encounter a wide variety of experiences when it comes to their records. Some have high-quality digital files, while others have the old microfiche systems. Some cities don’t have any building plans due to flood or fire. In the event of the worst-case scenario where there is no record of the existing fire suppression system, you can hire a fire sprinkler engineer to test the system and calculate the sprinkler’s capabilities.

You may also want to think through if there are older existing fire curtains within the building that can, or need to be removed, and the regulations for the distance and path of travel for fire exits. I have found that if you take an older manufacturing building and try to upgrade its fire systems to suit distribution needs that there are be more considerations than normal. Here is pays to have material handling and high pile permit experts here to guide you.