Sprinklers may be required to be installed by building codes, or may be recommended by insurance companies to reduce potential property losses or business interruption. Building codes in the United States for places of assembly, generally over 100 persons, and places with overnight sleeping accommodation such as hotels, nursing homes, dormitories, and hospitals usually require sprinklers either under local building codes, as a condition of receiving State and Federal funding or as a requirement to obtain certification (essential for institutions who wish to train medical staff)

Each closed-head sprinkler is held closed by either a heat-sensitive glass bulb or a two-part metal link held together with fusible alloy. The glass bulb or link applies pressure to a pip cap which acts as a plug which prevents water from flowing until the ambient temperature around the sprinkler reaches the design activation temperature of the individual sprinkler head. In a standard wet-pipe sprinkler system, each sprinkler activates independently when the predetermined heat level is reached. Because of this, the number of sprinklers that operate is limited to only those near the fire, thereby maximizing the available water pressure over the point of fire origin.
A sprinkler activation will do less damage than a fire department hose stream, which provide approximately 900 liters/min (250 US gallons/min). A typical sprinkler used for industrial manufacturing occupancies discharge about 75-150 litres/min (20-40 US gallons/min). However, a typical Early Suppression Fast Response (ESFR) sprinkler at a pressure of 50 psi (340 kPa) will discharge approximately 100 US gallons per minute (0.0063 m3/s). In addition, a sprinkler will usually activate between one and four minutes, whereas the fire department typically takes at least five minutes to arrive at the fire site after receiving an alarm, and an additional ten minutes to set up equipment and apply hose streams to the fire. This additional time can result in a much larger fire, requiring much more water to achieve extinguishment.

Design intent
Sprinkler systems are intended to either control the fire or to suppress the fire. Control mode sprinklers are intended to control the heat release rate of the fire to prevent building structure collapse, and pre-wet the surrounding combustibles to prevent fire spread. The fire is not extinguished until the burning combustibles are exhausted or manual extinguishment is effected by firefighters. Suppression mode sprinklers (formerly known as Early Suppression Fast Response (ESFR) sprinklers) are intended to result in a severe sudden reduction of the heat release rate of the fire, followed quickly by complete extinguishment, prior to manual intervention.

Wet pipe systems
By a wide margin, wet pipe sprinkler systems are installed more often than all other types of fire sprinkler systems. They also are the most reliable, because they are simple, with the only operating components being the automatic sprinklers and (commonly, but not always) the automatic alarm check valve. An automatic water supply provides water under pressure to the system piping.
Operation - When an automatic sprinkler is exposed for a sufficient time to a temperature at or above the temperature rating, the heat sensitive element (glass bulb or fusible link) releases, allowing water to flow from that sprinkler.

Dry pipe systems
Dry pipe systems are installed in spaces in which the ambient temperature may be cold enough to freeze the water in a wet pipe system, rendering the system inoperable. Dry pipe systems are most often used in unheated buildings, in parking garages, in outside canopies attached to heated buildings (in which a wet pipe system would be provided), or in refrigerated coolers. Dry pipe systems are the second most common sprinkler system type. In regions using NFPA regulations, dry pipe systems cannot be installed unless the range of ambient temperatures reaches below 40F[4].

Operation - Water is not present in the piping until the system operates. The piping is filled with air below the water supply pressure. To prevent the larger water supply pressure from forcing water into the piping, the design of the dry pipe valve (a specialized type of check valve) results in a greater force on top of the check valve clapper by the use of a larger valve clapper area exposed to the piping air pressure, as compared to the higher water pressure but smaller clapper surface area.

When one or more of the automatic sprinklers is exposed to for a sufficient time to a temperature at or above the temperature rating, it opens, allowing the air in the piping to vent from that sprinkler. Each sprinkler operates individually. As the air pressure in the piping drops, the pressure differential across the dry pipe valve changes, allowing water to enter the piping system. Water flow from sprinklers needed to control the fire is delayed until the air is vented from the sprinklers. For this reason, dry pipe systems are usually not as effective as wet pipe systems in fire control during the initial stages of the fire.
Some view dry pipe sprinklers as advantageous for protection of collections and other water sensitive areas. This perceived benefit is due to a fear that wet system piping may leak, while dry pipe systems will not. However, the same potential for accidental water damage exists, as dry pipe systems will only provide a slight delay prior to water discharge while the air in the piping is released from the pipe.

Disadvantages of using dry pipe fire sprinkler systems include:

  • Increased complexity - Dry pipe systems require additional control equipment and air pressure supply components which increases system complexity. This puts a premium on proper maintenance, as this increase in system complexity results in an inherently less reliable overall system (i.e., more single failure points) as compared to a wet pipe system.
  • Higher installation and maintenance costs - The added complexity impacts the overall dry-pipe installation cost, and increases maintenance expenditure primarily due to added service labor costs.
  • Lower design flexibility - Regulatory requirements limit the maximum permitted size (i.e., 750 gallons) of individual dry-pipe systems, unless additional components and design efforts are provided to limit the time from sprinkler activation to water discharge to under one minute. These limitations may increase the number of individual sprinkler systems (i.e., served from a single riser) that must be provided in the building, and impact the ability of an owner to make system additions.
  • Increased fire response time - Because the piping is empty at the time the sprinkler operates, there is an inherent time delay in delivering water to the sprinklers which have operated while the water travels from the riser to the sprinkler, partially filling the piping in the process. A maximum of 60 seconds is normally allowed by regulatory requirements from the time a single sprinkler opens until water is discharged onto the fire. This delay in fire suppression results in a larger fire prior to control, increasing property damage.
  • Increased corrosion potential - Following operation or testing, dry-pipe sprinkler system piping is drained, but residual water collects in piping low spots, and moisture is also retained in the atmosphere within the piping. This moisture, coupled with the oxygen available in the compressed air in the piping, increases pipe internal wall corrosion rates, possibly eventually leading to leaks. The internal pipe wall corrosion rate in wet pipe systems (in which the piping is constantly full of water) is much lower, as the amount of oxygen available for the corrosion process is lower.
Deluge systems
  • "Deluge" systems are systems in which all sprinklers connected to the water piping system are open, in that the heat sensing operating element is removed, or specifically designed as such. These systems are used for special hazards where rapid fire spread is a concern, as they provide a simultaneous application of water over the entire hazard. They are sometimes installed in personnel egress paths or building openings to slow travel of fire (e.g., openings in a fire-rated wall).
  • Water is not present in the piping until the system operates. Because the sprinkler orifices are open, the piping is at atmospheric pressure. To prevent the water supply pressure from forcing water into the piping, a deluge valve is used in the water supply connection, which is a mechanically latched valve. It is a non-resetting valve, and stays open once tripped.
  • Because the heat sensing elements present in the automatic sprinklers have been removed (resulting in open sprinklers), the deluge valve must be opened as signaled by a fire alarm system. The type of fire alarm initiating device is selected mainly based on the hazard (e.g., smoke detectors, heat detectors, or optical flame detectors). The initiation device signals the fire alarm panel, which in turn signals the deluge valve to open. Activation can also be manual, depending on the system goals. Manual activation is usually via an electric or pneumatic fire alarm pull station, which signals the fire alarm panel, which in turn signals the deluge valve to open.
  • Operation - Activation of a fire alarm initiating device, or a manual pull station, signals the fire alarm panel, which in turn signals the deluge valve to open, allowing water to enter the piping system. Water flows from all sprinklers simultaneously.

Pre-Action Systems
Pre-action sprinkler systems are specialized for use in locations where accidental activation is undesired, such as in museums with rare art works, manuscripts, or books; and Data Centers, for protection of computer equipment from accidental water discharge.

Pre-action systems are hybrids of wet, dry, and deluge systems, depending on the exact system goal. There are two main sub-types of pre-action systems: single interlock, and double interlock.
The operation of single interlock systems are similar to dry systems except that these systems require that a “preceding” fire detection event, typically the activation of a heat or smoke detector, takes place prior to the “action” of water introduction into the system’s piping by opening the pre-action valve, which is a mechanically latched valve (i.e., similar to a deluge valve). In this way, the system is essentially converted from a dry system into a wet system. The intent is to reduce the undesirable time delay of water delivery to sprinklers that is inherent in dry systems. Prior to fire detection, if the sprinkler operates, or the piping system develops a leak, loss of air pressure in the piping will activate a trouble alarm. In this case, the pre-action valve will not open due to loss of supervisory pressure, and water will not enter the piping.
The operation of double interlock systems are similar to deluge systems except that automatic sprinklers are used. These systems require that both a “preceding” fire detection event, typically the activation of a heat or smoke detector, and an automatic sprinkler operation take place prior to the “action” of water introduction into the system’s piping. Activation of either the fire detectors alone, or sprinklers alone, without the concurrent operation of the other, will not allow water to enter the piping. Because water does not enter the piping until a sprinkler operates, double interlock systems are considered as dry systems in terms of water delivery times, and similarly require a larger design area.

Foam water sprinkler systems
A foam water fire sprinkler system is a special application system, discharging a mixture of water and low expansion foam concentrate, resulting in a foam spray from the sprinkler. These systems are usually used with special hazards occupancies associated with high challenge fires, such as flammable liquids, and airport hangars. Operation is as described above, depending on the system type into which the foam is injected.

Water spray
"Water spray" systems are operationally identical to a deluge system, but the piping and discharge nozzle spray patterns are designed to protect a uniquely configured hazard, usually being three dimensional components or equipment (i.e., as opposed to a deluge system, which is designed to cover the horizontal floor area of a room). The nozzles used may not be listed fire sprinklers, and are usually selected for a specific spray pattern to conform to the three dimensional nature of the hazard (e.g., typical spray patterns being oval, fan, full circle, narrow jet). Examples of hazards protected by water spray systems are electrical transformers containing oil for cooling or turbgenerator bearings. Water spray systems can also be used externally on the surfaces of tanks containing flammable liquids or gases (such as hydrogen). Here the water spray is intended to cool the tank and its contents to prevent tank rupture/explosion (BLEVE) and fire spread.

Gas Suppression

Foam Systems