The SMART protocol
Published: 30 March, 2017
A new test protocol based on the concept of simultaneous monitoring, assessment and response technology (SMART) is about to be published – and it is expected to kick-start innovation in fire protection for high-risk areas.
SMART sprinklers use multiple sensors and programmable logic to extinguish fires more quickly with less water, theoretically enabling warehouses to be bigger, use less expensive water systems and store more challenging materials.
The only practical alternative using current technology entails sprinklers with large orifices and high pressures of water, which require larger water-storage facilities and more pumping capacity and therefore lead to higher costs.
“The new concept," explains Dr Louis Gritzo, vice president and manager of research with FM Global, "is that if a fire can be detected early enough and a certain prescribed number of sprinklers can be activated right in the fire zone, then the fire can be quickly suppressed with the least amount of water. These were the two drivers and then came the idea, well, now electronics are more reliable and more acceptable."
The system effectiveness was first studied and documented in two technical reports led by Dr Yibing Xin of FM Global, SMART sprinkler protection for highly challenging fires – Phase 1: system design and function evaluation, and SMART sprinkler protection for highly challenging fires – Phase 2: full-scale fire tests in rack storage. Subsequently, the reliability and cost-effectiveness of this technology were investigated by FM Global, and the results publicly published in the report, Evaluation of the availability of the SMART sprinkler system.
The reliability research compares two sprinkler scenarios, one where a fire occurs in a warehouse with conventional risk conditions and a conventional sprinkler solution; and another where the fire-risk conditions are outside the scope of existing FM Global protection recommendations, but where the building is protected by SMART sprinkler. The latter scenario is a warehouse storing paper rolls in stacks taller than 12.8m, compared to a warehouse storing standard materials at a height below 12.8m.
The reliability report contains three main conclusions: firstly, that the availability of both wired and wireless SMART sprinkler configurations (ie their ability to operate when called upon) – is 86% and 83% respectively, compared to 97% for an established, traditional sprinkler system.
Secondly, that the gap between SMART sprinkler availability and that of traditional sprinklers can be roughly halved by increasing inspection, testing and maintenance from once to twice yearly. Lastly, that the estimated lifetime cost of inspection, testing and maintenance of traditional sprinklers is 50% lower than that of SMART sprinklers.
The report also estimated that for a 5,000m2 warehouse, the cost of installing traditional sprinklers would be around US$280,000, compared to US$710,000 for wired SMART sprinklers and US$740,000 for wireless SMART sprinklers.
As commercially available SMART sprinklers don’t exist yet, the SMART sprinkler used in the research – which also houses the fire detector – was specifically designed to test the concept and to enable experimentation to begin, as documented in the two reports studying system effectiveness. “We started with some fairly small storage arrangements in a small burn lab in our research campus in Rhode Island to develop the algorithm that takes the sensor data, analyses it and locates the fire,” explains Gritzo. “That is one of the key pieces to this system, and it has to be robust and accurate. That was one of the key breakthroughs. The second breakthrough was how to determine how many sprinklers you need to activate.”
Following the development of the algorithm plus the identification of the number of sprinklers required to extinguish a small-scale fire, the experiments studying system effectiveness continued in a larger burn laboratory. Here the technology was applied to a number of storage scenarios of increasing ceiling height to prove the concept in different scenarios, relative to current sprinkler protection technology. The testing was so successful that FM Approvals is quickly moving towards a new test protocol for SMART, even if SMART solutions are not yet available. “We’ve done a proof of concept, we’ve assembled a system, we’ve published its characteristics and how we were able to achieve success with that system."
Gritzo admits that it’s not exactly typical to create the approval system before the technology is available. “But it represents the kind of innovation that our research programme specialises in. We identify needs that our clients have that are not being served by the industry. Many times it’s caused by doubts about the viability of those approaches. If nothing is happening we’ll invest on behalf of our clients in innovative solutions and then we’ll share those.”
Depending on the reaction from the product manufacturers and the kind of systems that are developed, the protocol may be further adapted to accommodate any particular features. “We made the decision that, for proof of concept, we would start with co-locating the detectors and the sprinklers in one unit, to make it simpler. An innovative manufacturer may have another solution to bring to market and we can adjust the test protocol accordingly.
“So at this point, we are looking forward to seeing manufacturers put products together and going to FM Approvals to get them tested and certified.” As the commercialisation process rolls on, Gritzo expects that the figures relating to the cost of SMART sprinkler systems, as outlined in the research report, will decrease, as will the gap in reliability between traditional and SMART sprinklers.
The main point, however, should not be forgotten. “The real shining star here, however, is that even though our current reliability analysis shows that the reliability is lower than a current sprinkler system, here is a new opportunity to protect things that can’t be protected,” says Gritzo. “What we have here is potential for a renaissance in terms of fire protection for industrial facilities; to take those digital systems that have become pervasive everywhere else in the world and use them to really improve fire protection.
“I would put this as an important first step in the evolution of the fire-protection industry for high-challenge industrial applications.” Once the test protocol has been published by FM Approvals, it will then be up to the fire industry to rise up to the challenge of the digital world.