Protecting Shopping Malls Against Fire: Could your mall have frozen pipes?

frozen fire sprinklers

Writer:  Sarah Block, Marketing Director at The Moran Group

Shopping malls go hand-in-hand with adaptation. The evolution of the mall began with Trajan's Market, built in Rome around 100-110 AD. The concept of the mall evolved from an open air market to the modern day, enclosed mall, first built in Edina, Minnesota in 1956. Shopping malls continue to change to adopt new retail ventures. It is this continuous change that provides a backdrop to hidden areas that may unknowingly be prone to freezing fire protection sprinkler pipes.

What are common fire hazards in malls?

Malls have a greater than average chance of fire due to the transient population. Each year, 1,710 fire events take place in the retail industry and 119 are caused by arson, according to the NFPA. Other issues that stem from the transient population, including short-term employees, are smoking within the building and unsafe storage of combustible and flammable materials.

Additional fire hazards are electrical malfunctions and the open flames, sparks, and hot surfaces, found in most restaurants. Large numbers of people, expensive property, and large stocks of merchandise rely on a full fire protection solution to keep them safe. Because of the menagerie of retail outlets and a diverse population, fire protection must also be kept at its peak performance.

Why does fire sprinkler piping freeze?

There are several causes for the freezing of fire sprinkler pipes throughout the life of the building. During the construction phase, wet-pipe sprinklers may be installed in the interior of the mall; however, heat is not yet circulating throughout the building. If the temperature drops to 40 degrees or below, wet-pipe sprinkler piping runs the risk of freezing.

In unheated areas, such as exterior areas, attics, or storage rooms, dry-pipe, pre-action, dry-pendent, or dry-sidewall sprinklers are typically installed by an expert fire protection service provider. However, if the sprinklers activate and are not adequately drained, the sitting water has the opportunity to freeze within the pipe.


What can happen if a pipe freezes?

If temperatures reach below 40 degrees, any water within a fire sprinkler pipe runs the risk of freezing according to NFPA 13, 13D, and 13R. The most common areas that freeze in fire sprinkler piping are short-runs of sprinkler piping, such as exterior walls and attic spaces. These pipes are often forgotten by property personnel when a sprinkler head activates and pipes need to be drained.

When water freezes, it increases in size by 10%. This is significant enough to increase the pressure to the point of bursting a pipe, fitting, or sprinkler and can cause the release of up to 30 gallons of water per minute. Each time a pipe bursts, it will typically cost a property owner $30,000+ per event.

If a fire event happens when the fire sprinkler piping has an ice block, it will inhibit water flow and the sprinkler head may not activate.

Leaks from frozen pipes typically appear when the pipes begin to thaw, so properties are more likely to experience a burst pipe in the early spring or on warm winter days. With the erratic winter weather in the Midwest, property owners need to be particularly pro-active about their fire protection inspection, testing, and maintenance, especially after a sprinkler activates.

How do we prevent fire sprinkler pipes from freezing?

The initial opportunity to prevent a pipe from bursting due to freezing water is to work with a fire protection service provider that is well aware of the risks of freezing weather on fire sprinkler piping. They will design a system that will mitigate the risks of burst pipes. Installing dry-pipe, pre-action, dry-pendant, or dry-sidewall sprinklers will ensure water is not in the pipes unless a fire sprinkler activates, reducing the likelihood of freezing pipes. If a sprinkler activates, call your fire protection contractor immediately to properly drain pipes of excess water.

Steps can be taken to prevent freezing pipes: 

1. Have employees stay alert and be aware of cold weather conditions. 
2. Check fire protection frequently during the winter months.
3. According to Bollinger Insurance, do not attempt do-it-yourself repairs on fire protection systems. Obtain the services of a trained professional.
4. During annual fire protection inspections, ask your contractor to test all valves.
5. Have personnel trained on how to shut down valves in the event of a burst pipe.

If an ice blockage is discovered, do not use an open flame or temporary heating equipment in an attempt to melt the ice. This will present an unnecessary fire risk.

Fire protection systems are essential to the safety of customers, employees, property, and merchandise in malls. 98% of sprinkler failure is due to human error. If a frozen pipe is discovered, contact your fire protection contractor to provide emergency maintenance and reduce the chances of a burst pipe causing $30,000 in damages or a fire sprinkler malfunction when you need it most.

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