The rate of innovation in the fire suppression industry has varied across the industry in recent years. Although the market has largely been driven by the opportunity to progress new developments, innovation has also been the result of a number of external factors, including regulations, changing infrastructure and growing pressures for more sustainable measures. Recent high-profile fires have also contributed to changes across the industry, as manufacturers look to develop new and innovative techniques amid rising concerns.
Whatever the reason for change, innovation is a crucial part of the fire suppression industry, based on an organisation’s ability to identify problems and potential solutions for the market. However, this is much more than simply developing new products; it also includes the creation of improved services by evolving existing solutions that can help fill the gap, rather than ‘reinventing the wheel’ each time. Here, Henrik Johansson, Arjan ten Broeke and Steve Sims who look after business development at Johnson Controls, explore what innovation means to them and what we can expect in the future of fire suppression.
Reacting to the market
With an ever-increasing population, the trend for high rise buildings looks set to continue. For example, in the UK alone, there are currently more than 270 buildings standing at over 150 m in height, with around 500 more proposed and under construction. These high hazard occupancies pose a significant challenge for fire suppression systems. To mitigate the growing risk, manufacturers are having to innovate to meet the increasing demands from the market.
With space at a premium, the growing trend for high-rise buildings has meant that fire suppression manufacturers have been forced to adapt their systems to address both the complexities of the infrastructure and the requirements of stringent legislation. Arjan ten Broeke indicates that space-saving is a huge area of growth for the industry: “Now that suspended ceilings are no longer needed in modern buildings, fire suppression systems can be piped directly into concrete to create further space and be more aesthetically pleasing – this is especially common in Benelux countries. The trend for saving space in high-rise buildings is also leading to significant changes in equipment preferences from users, as it becomes more discreet.”
“In addition, when referring to piping, although lightweight systems are helping to alleviate the challenge of limited space in modern infrastructure, problems such as corrosion can still exist. Since most pipes are made of iron, corrosion can cause fire suppression systems to leak, reducing the performance of the overall unit.”
In the case of sprinklers, Johnson Controls is looking to improve performance by replacing oxygen with nitrogen – to reduce corrosion. The IntelliGen™ Controller is designed for dry and pre-action fire sprinkler systems, allowing nitrogen to be piped directly from the outlet to the air maintenance device to protect the system from corrosion. By reducing the amount of corrosion in piping, it can have a positive impact on the lifecycle of these types of systems.
Gaseous fire suppression systems are also becoming increasingly popular as they offer a lightweight solution that can reduce the footprint in areas where space is limited, such as data centers. One example of the space saving innovation is the SAPPHIRE® Plus system. By using higher pressures and refreshing the hydraulic calculation software used for determining pipe sizes, more fire protection fluid can be included in the containers – resulting in 20-25% fewer being required than 25 bar or 42 bar systems. The higher pressure also enables the containers to be located away from the protected space if needed – a crucial factor in providing fire suppression in high risk areas such as data centres, power generation plants and medical facilities, for example.
Reacting to high-profile events
In addition to the requirement for space-saving measures, fires high up on building exteriors can be difficult for firefighters to reach, particularly on complex structural designs and podium-type buildings. Recent high-profile events, such as the Grenfell Tower tragedy in London, have shown how fast a fire can spread in facades with combustible cladding, engulfing the whole building in only few minutes. Such catastrophic events have demonstrated the importance of external protection, challenging the whole industry to provide new standards to ensure life safety and property protection. Manufacturers have therefore looked to innovate complex systems that can effectively suppress fires quickly – even at heights.
Earlier this year, Johnson Controls partnered with a third-party consulting firm and research group to successfully test a new technology that could potentially save countless lives with early fire identification and intervention for rapid fire protection to the external facade of a building. The testing validated the new SPRAYSAFE autonomous fire suppression (AFS) technology has the capability to rapidly and autonomously fight an early-stage fire anywhere within its coverage area . Additionally, the system also effectively contained flashover fires, prevented fires from spreading via the exterior of the facade surface and limited severe fire damage to the point of origin.
As well as high-rise building incidents, data centres can also be vulnerable and face significant consequences from the outbreak of fires. In these settings, the release of inert gas fire suppression systems– either accidental or due to fires developing – have occasionally resulted in hard disk drive (HDD) failures through their increased sensitivity to sound. This has prompted further research by Johnson Controls on how to overcome the problem – and the need to develop potential solutions to combat it. Steve Sims adds: “while inert gas fire suppression systems are traditionally used to protect high risks in data centres, they can produce sound levels that may have adverse effects on noise-sensitive equipment such as HDDs. The solution is a range of acoustic nozzles that have a large area of protection per nozzle, and a low sound power output.”
Henrik Johansson adds: “We cannot just wait for accidents to happen, or until new regulations are brought in. We need to look at the kind of fire suppression that is needed globally, as well as locally, such as the development of higher buildings or increased storage capacity. It is crucial that we adopt a collaborative approach to innovation before it is needed, in the same way that other industries, like automotive, address it.”
Proactively ensuring sustainability
Innovating more sustainable technologies is a growing requirement for manufacturers – by moving away from agents that have been found to be environmentally damaging. For example, halon systems were commonly used in the protection of high value assets until halon production was halted as part of the Montreal Protocol for contributing to the depletion of the ozone layer. A popular alternative was hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), a man-made compound that extinguishes fires by physical cooling and chemical inhibition of the flame.
However, the potential impact of HFCs on global warming has raised questions across the fire suppression industry. In fact, recent European legislation on fluorinated greenhouse gases (F-gases) in 2014 outlined mandates to cut the use of HFCs to 79% below average 2009-2012 levels by 2030. As such, increasing numbers of plant managers are looking to retrofit HFC systems with more compliant, sustainable solutions. Steve Sims comments, “With fewer HFC systems coming onto the market, the gap is being filled with inert gas technologies, alternative synthetic agents, such as 3M™ Novec™ 1230, and Water Mist Fire Suppression, where appropriate.”
Already a key trend for the built environment, the use of ‘smart’ technology looks set to change the fire suppression industry, too. Manufacturers are continuing to innovate with equipment to become more integrated into platforms, as part of a wider solution to enable smart building monitoring through digital devices. By monitoring a suppression system through cloud-based connectivity, operators in the future could monitor any fire protection activity remotely – particularly important for high risk areas where physical access may be restricted.
Steve Sims adds, “We expect smart systems to gain in popularity in the future. As well as the benefits of remote monitoring, it is also possible that individual components deemed critical for the successful activation of a suppression system will be able to run self-diagnosis checks and report back any failures found, meaning they can be replaced quickly and proactively if required. This can help improve efficiency in fire suppression equipment, helping to address issues at the earliest opportunity rather than only when an engineer spots them on their bi-annual service visits.”
A safe future
Although the past 10 years has seen plenty of innovation in the fire suppression sector, it has been relatively slow compared to the wider built environment industry. As demands from insurers continue to increase and legislation changes, further progress needs to be made to ensure increased reliability and efficacy. By anticipating the needs of the market and the potential challenges that users will face, manufacturers can help ensure the sector evolves with the industry.
However, it is important that fire protection systems are seen as part of a wider, holistic solution that includes detection as well as suppression. As Henrik Johansson says, awareness is crucial: “30 years ago, the emphasis on safety was not as great. If you have a business today, you cannot have an accident, and there is an increased pressure to conform with local regulations. Awareness among owners of businesses is therefore at an all-time high – with Europe and the US leading the way and awareness growing in countries like China and India.”
As infrastructure continues to change and buildings become higher and more complex, innovation in fire suppression is evolving to suit these requirements, while ensuring systems are environmentally friendly. In addition to focusing on new product development, combining resources with other existing technologies and looking for inspiration in other vertical sectors could offer other reliable solutions, to allow manufacturers to drive innovation in the market and keep buildings as safe as possible.