What Type of Fire Suppression System Will Best Suit Your Fire Safety Needs?

April 29, 2019

Fire suppression systems Canada-wide typically represent a case of “out of sight-out of mind." When entering a building for the first time few people ask or wonder if there “is a fire suppression installation." Perhaps this is because fire suppression systems are pretty much ubiquitous in all commercial buildings and in larger multi-residential buildings.

While you may not pay any attention to them, little doubt that you often see fire sprinkler heads spaced across the ceilings of any commercial building you enter, as well as any apartment or condo buildings. You are also undoubtedly aware that they are part of the building's fire suppression system, and that, more likely than not, water will discharge from those sprinkler heads in the event of a fire.

But those water discharge-based fire sprinkler heads represent just one example out of many available fire suppression system types. What you might not know is that fire suppression requirements can differ based on building usage, contents, space, and a variety of other parameters. Water-based fire suppression systems — Toronto-wide and across Canada — tend to predominate, but systems that utilize gas or chemicals are far more prevalent than you might think. While this is due in part to regulatory requirements based on building use and/or contents, in many cases gas and chemical fire suppression can be more effective than just trying to extinguish a fire with water. The debate over type of fire suppression pros and cons remains open, so read on to learn more about what types of Toronto fire suppression systems you might fall under the protection of.

The Basics: What is a Fire Suppression System?

Fire suppression systems are designed to extinguish fires, or, at the least, prevent them from spreading. They work by dispersing water or chemicals at the site of a potential fire when heat sensors detect signs of an emergent fire, and some systems can be manually activated. Early fire suppression systems relied on water, with Leonardo da Vinci credited with designing a water-based sprinkler system in the 1400s. Despite Leonardo's notable engineering prowess for the time, his fire suppression efforts proved to be a bust, as a prototype he installed in a friend's kitchen reportedly worked too well and caused a flood during a huge banquet.

Manual perforated pipe water delivery systems were used to protect textile mills in the 1800s, and inventors Philip W. Pratt, Henry Parmalee, and Frederick Ginnell are credited with their separate and respective work in inventing and innovating upon the automatic fire sprinkler system that has become the mainstay of today's water-based systems.

While water-based fire suppression systems remain the most widely used across Canada, their use comes with limitations. First, as anyone who has ever tried to put out an electrical or stovetop grease fire knows, water isn't always effective at suppressing the fire. Second, water can end up causing as much damage as the fire itself, especially in relation to electronic equipment.

With these facts in mind, inventors in the 20th Century developed fire suppression systems that utilized gases, or wet and dry chemical solutions to suppress and extinguish fires. While some of these substances typically work by denying a fire the oxygen it needs to burn, the more advanced substances use chemical reactions to stop the combustion process by absorbing its heat. Most tend to cause minimal damage on a relative basis to the buildings and contents within that they protect. Because of these properties, gas and chemical-based fire suppression systems have become the systems of choice for buildings or areas within buildings containing flammable materials that are hard to extinguish with water, or that are especially susceptible to water damage. In some cases, Ontario's Fire Code, in conjunction with local building codes, mandates the use of such fire suppression, Toronto having by far the most buildings in the province likely to be covered by any dictates within the codes.

Building applications most likely to benefit from, or need, gaseous or chemical fire suppression systems include:

  • electronics
  • telecommunications
  • switch rooms
  • medical equipment
  • medical record rooms
  • data centers
  • server rooms
  • oil pumping stations
  • pump rooms
  • engine compartments
  • engine and machinery spaces
  • books, art and antiquities

What is a Halon-Based Fire Suppression System?

In the 1960s the chemical compound “Bromotrifluoromethane, more commonly referred to as Halon 1301, emerged as the gaseous fire suppression system of choice, especially for the protection of high-value materials that would be ruined by water-based suppression systems. In particular, Halon 101 was adopted for use by data centers, museums, libraries, surgical rooms, and pretty much anywhere utilizing extensive electronics and/or computer-related technology.

Unfortunately, Halon ended up being classified along with Freon and other Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) as being responsible for manmade destruction of the earth's Ozone layer. The 1989 international treaty known as the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer laid out steps for ending its production and phasing out its use. While production of new Halon 1301stocks came to a halt in 1993, Halon 1301-based fire suppression systems were allowed to remain in commission under a grandfather clause.

To this day, Halon 1301-based fire suppression systems are still in use, though as of 2016 it became illegal in Ontario to refill Halon-based equipment with any existing stocks of the agent. Additionally, Ontario's Fire Code dictates that Halon-based fire suppression systems have a declared alternative in place to prepare for the end of the equipment's lifecycle. With the legal absence of refilling alternatives and aging of the original systems, remaining Halon 1301 systems are rapidly being decommissioned and replaced.

The First Notable Halon Fire Suppression System Replacement

FM-200 emerged as the first primary replacement for Halon, based on both its effectiveness and its Ozone-friendly and non-toxic properties. FM-200 is stored as a liquid and dispersed as a vaporized gas, and works by absorbing heat and snuffing flames via a combination of chemical and physical reactions. Most effective in enclosed spaces, FM-200 does not displace oxygen and can be safely discharged into occupied areas.

While the effectiveness of FM-200 is not in dispute, because it is a hydrofluorocarbon (HFC), it is considered a potential contributor to global warming. There are no signs that FM-200 is about to be banned due to global warming considerations and it remains widely used worldwide as a fire suppression system, Toronto being no exception. While still considered one of the most cost-effective Halon replacements, its potential treatment as a global warming gas means that its lifetime maintenance and disposal costs could increase significantly and take away its cost-competitive edge.

How is the Novec Fire Suppression System Different?

Along with FM-200, Novec fire suppression systems have emerged as one of the primary gaseous fire suppression replacements. A Fluorinated Ketone, Novec 1230 was invented by the 3M™ Company specifically as a “clean" replacement for Halon 1301. Stored as a liquid and discharged as a gas, Novec 1230 is promoted for its rapid-fire suppression properties and quick evaporation, with both serving to help protect valuables in cases of fire and their subsequent control. 3M™ says the substance is the “cleanest, most environment-friendly chemical agent in existence." The compound is non-toxic, has no ozone depleting components, minimal global warming properties, and a small, five-day atmospheric lifetime. Given the outstanding profile and fire suppressing abilities of a Novec fire suppression system, Toronto-area fire safety companies have adopted it as one of their go-to replacements for Halon systems.

For more information about Novec fire suppression systems, Toronto-based Control Fire Systems is an authorized dealer of state-of-the-art Novec fire suppression equipment, and your go-to company for installation, service, and inspection of all Novec-based equipment.

What Other Options Are There?

While Novec and FM-200 tend to be the most popular non-water-based fire suppression systems considered as reliable replacements for Halon-style usage, inert gas systems may also serve as effective replacements in some cases. While some rely on oxygen suffocation to control fires, others work by a combination of oxygen displacement and chemical cooling action. The drawbacks to these systems include a great likelihood of damaging building contents and a greater potential risk to human health. While wet and dry chemical fire suppression systems are also effective, their usage presents similar risk factors.

How Do You Decide Which Fire Suppression System to Use?

There is no one-size fits all answer to this question, and dozens of different factors that need to be weighed in deciding which fire suppression system to install in your Toronto-area building or facility. Some of the parameters that need to be considered include size of facility, contents, usage, fire risk factors, costs, space, occupancy, and so much more. While this is partly a personal decision up to the building owner, it is largely dictated by engineering considerations, which represent the first step in the installation process.

How are Fire Suppression Systems Installed?

Whether a new building or existing facility, there are hundreds of details involved with fire suppression system installation, which means installation is typically the first step in the installation process. Not only do the specifics of fire control in dedicated spaces need to be engineered, but so does the placement and configuration of the actual equipment. Meanwhile, these engineering considerations need to be considered in context with every other engineering detail involved with the building.

This explains why our fire systems engineering department includes six different teams:

  • Factory trained design staff
  • AutoCAD in-house designers
  • Fire alarm system engineering and suppression system design team
  • Special hazard fire systems specifier
  • Data center fire protection design
  • Technical support

While a particular job probably does not need the services of all six teams, Control Fire Systems maintains a full complement of engineering staff to ensure that every potential engineering and installation challenge can be addressed effectively and cost efficiently.

Once the engineering challenges have been addressed, we have a certified team of experienced professional staff who manage all details of the installation, from the suppressions system piping and reagent storage to its electrical components.

What Kind of Maintenance Services do Fire Suppression Systems Need?

Canadian Fire Codes generally follow the standards established by the U.S.-based National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), which sets out protocols for fire suppression system inspection and fire suppression system testing. NFPA standards generally dictate complete system inspections and testing annually, though chemical cylinders should be inspected every six months for weight and pressure.

Control Fire Systems inspection and maintenance technicians received training from the manufacturers of the various fire suppression systems and components we sell, and undergo periodic continuing education to make sure that they keep abreast of industry trends. All of our personnel are licensed and permitted by the relevant authorities to install, service, repair, and test fire suppression equipment.

How Much do Fire Suppression Systems Cost?

As with the lack of one-size-fits-all answer when choosing a system and then installing it, the cost of a fire suppression system is dependent upon numerous variables. Whether the installation of an individual fire suppression system for a specific area, or the engineering and installation for a complete fire safety system that includes detection, alarms, suppression, emergency lighting, signage and every other element of fire safety, you can be sure that you are purchasing the best equipment in the industry, which will be installed with a level of professionalism that ensures the invaluable protection of your property and people.

To learn more about what fire suppression system might fit your specific needs in the greater Toronto area, contact Control Fire Systems for your free consultation and quote. Located at 63 Advance Road in Toronto, Ontario, you can call us at 416-236-2371, or let us know what your fire safety needs are by filling out our online contact form.

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