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  • 1.  Fire suppression systems

    Posted 09-06-2022 05:16 PM
    The university museum where I work is preparing to renovate a campus building for use as collection storage. The collection that we will be storing in this facility is a craft collection - a lot of ceramics, but also, wood, textiles, glass, etc. 
    I am interested in hearing from anyone with thoughts on fire suppression systems. I had been planning to recommend a dry pipe sprinkler system, but was wondering if there are other systems the list would recommend we consider.  

    Jonathan Bucci
    Curator of Collections and Exhibitions
    Hallie Ford Museum of Art
    Willamette University
    900 State Street
    Salem, Oregon 97301
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  • 2.  RE: Fire suppression systems

    Posted 09-07-2022 09:17 AM
    Dear Dr. Bucci - you may want to first consult your insurance carrier.  When I was in a similar position, we researched and discovered that the wet pipe system was preferred and could result in lower premiums.  In anticipation of the unlikely event of a false trigger, shelving and location can do much to protect your collection.  Vivian

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  • 3.  RE: Fire suppression systems

    Posted 09-07-2022 11:18 AM
      |   view attached

    NPS have a decent chapter on fire protection. It is a touchy issue not only for museums, but for the fire service as well. I was a Captain in FDNY in midtown, where here the NY Library and other museums were in my administrative and response area.

    Not just the use of water, but also firefighters removing collections to a safe place is a problem. 

    I have attached chapter 9 from the NPS handbook

    Any questions, feel free to call

    Rich Rotanz
    631 905 5651

    Richard Rotanz PhD
    Setauket NY


    Ch 9 Museum FP.pdf   1.83 MB 1 version
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  • 4.  RE: Fire suppression systems

    Posted 09-07-2022 02:59 PM
    A very (very!) useful book on the subject is Building Museums: A Handbook for Small and Midsize Organizations from the Minnesota Historical Society.   Of particular value is Chapter 5: Museum Environment - What Makes a Museum Building Special.  No one should build a museum or renovate a building to use as a museum without reading this chapter.

    Here's the link to the book on Amazon:
    Janice Klein
    EightSixSix Consulting
    SMAC-AAM Board Member

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  • 5.  RE: Fire suppression systems

    Posted 09-08-2022 01:26 PM
    I completely agree with Janice Klein's advice. Having good background information regarding changes -- or new construction -- for a museum building is essential. There can be so many variables that it is always a challenge to do everything right, and of course, the research and technologies are continually changing.

    I have no silver bullet to offer, but I have gleaned some useful thoughts from my decades of working in museums. First, it has been my experience that dry-pipe sprinkler systems have some serious drawbacks. The greatest, in my view, is that the system is not completely dry at all, once it has been commissioned. The main pipes are charged with water when the system is tested, and though the water is then drained, some water in inevitably left behind. Over months and years, rust and slime can build up in the pipes, and the worst part of that process is that the pipes' structure is gradually being reduced. In one museum where I worked, the repair of a small leak in one of the main pipes revealed that about half the thickness of the pipe had been weakened by corrosion -- this was about fifteen years after the system had been installed. This same situation led the Dewitt-Wallace Museum at Colonial Williamsburg to shut down for an extended period, so that the entire sprinkler system could be replaced. I regret to say that I do not have a reference to that in my files, but you can probably find it somewhere.

    Of course, the idea of water falling on your collections is a grim thought in general, but on the other hand, a prominent art conservator has said, "Once it has turned to toast, we can't turn it back into bread," referring to fire-damaged objects. To reiterate, there is no single correct answer that I know of; as is so often the case, "It depends." If at all possible, analysis and advice from an expert in the field is your best bet for planning the best, to prevent the worst.


    Bruce MacLeish
    Curator Emeritus, Newport Restoration Foundation
    Cooperstown NY

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  • 6.  RE: Fire suppression systems

    Posted 09-08-2022 11:54 AM
    Fire suppression and detection for cultural institutions is a complicated topic and the selection of a system depends on many factors including the NFPA codes, the building construction, archives and museum standards, and type of shelving used, and of course the types of collections.  There are a number of helpful resources that discuss fire protection and discussion with a fire protection engineer who has knowledge of the codes and requirements specific to irreplaceable collections is necessary. I will try and summarize but am happy to discuss with you by phone.

    In general, cultural institutions adhere to the following standards  from the National Fire Protection Association:
    • NFPA 13, Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems
    • NFPA 232, Standard for the Protection of Records
    • NFPA 750, Standard for Water Mist Fire Protection Systems
    • NFPA 909, Code for the Protection of Cultural Resources – Museums, Libraries and Places of Worship
    • NFPA 914, Code for the Fire Protection of Historic Structures.
    • NFPA 2001, Standard on Clean Agent Fire Extinguishing Systems    
    While not all are updated, other helpful resources include those published by the National Park Service (already mentioned), the National Archives, Smithsonian, NEDCC, and Canadian Conservation Institute. 

    The two most common systems for cultural heritage facilities are wet pipe and pre-action systems. Dry pipe is used when freezing is a concern, such as on a loading dock or in freezer storage.  Other more complex and costly systems used in cultural heritage facilities are clean agent systems (often with a back up wet pipe sprinkler system to protect the structure) and water mist systems. 

    Please note that the standards for cultural facilities often specify more robust fire rated walls than those prescribed by the codes. 

    Wet pipe systems are the standard for the National Archives, Presidential Libraries, Library of Congress (which tried pre-action and replaced them because of defects), National Park Service, and Canadian cultural institutions. While some cultural heritage institutions insist on pre-action to prevent accidental discharge, the system comes with additional complexities. Issues to consider in deciding include:
    • Reliability: with fewer components, wet pipe are extremely reliable 
      •  "61% of sprinkler controlled fires are brought under control using two or less sprinklers." Other statics cite one to three heads to control fire.
    • Effectiveness:  pre-action are slower to discharge allowing wider fire spread; slower delivery of water = more destruction
    • Cost: pre action are more expensive to install and maintain
    • For Mobile Shelving: Wet pipe sprinklers (quick response for under 12' tall systems) are the only fire suppression that is supported by live fire tests and specified for mobile shelving. I can send copies of the data and testing results if you are interested. NFPS 13, (2019) does not allow double-lock pre-action systems with compact mobile storage because of the delay in activation.  With the proscribed wet pipe sprinkler heads and early warning detection, the loss of materials is kept to under 300 cubic feet in a fire with mobile shelving. The system can extinguish the fire before the fire fighters come in with the high pressure hoses and create more water damage and damage to collections. 
    • Complexity: 
      • pre-action have a higher level of complexity and more mechanical parts 
      • pre-action have a longer shut-down time than wet pipe
      • wet pipes are easier to modify
      • wet pipes have shorter down time following a fire
    • Maintenance: wet pipes require less maintenance than pre-action
    • Risk of discharge:  While the risk does exist, failure rate of wet pipe sprinklers is low. Industry records note one in 16,000,000 heads discharge each year.  There are mitigation measures to lessen potential water damage.  Appropriate ones may include:
      • Zoned heads - there will not be a total deluge of water
      • Accessible water cut off valves
      • In collections storage - heads above shelving lessen risk of  staff accidents
      • Use of sprinkler cages for at-risk areas
      • Water detectors in at risk areas
      • Routine visual inspections

    Archival Facilities Consultant
    PO Box 1490, Jackson, WY 83001

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  • 7.  RE: Fire suppression systems

    Posted 09-09-2022 11:49 AM

    Michelle provides excellent advice and links to relevant information.

    Regarding "Accidental discharge" it should be noted that if discharge of water onto collections from the system as a whole is considered, then it is unclear whether dry or wet pipe systems present lower risk from accidental water exposure. Certainly catastrophic deluge failures have occurred with dry pipe systems (see, for example, in ways that would not be possible for wet pipe systems.



    Robert Waller, PhD, CAPC, FIIC
    President and Senior Risk Analyst
    Protect Heritage Corp.
    622 Simoneau Way
    Ottawa  ON  K4A 1P4
    phone: 613-883-2707 (Canada)
    phone: 303-872-9739 (USA)

    skype: rrwaller

    Research Associate, Canadian Museum of Nature
    Adjunct Assistant Professor, Queen's University




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  • 8.  RE: Fire suppression systems

    Posted 09-09-2022 08:34 AM
    My experience is with archival collections including artifacts like those in the collection that you want to protect but also including film, rare books and manuscripts, incunabula and lithographs. Most of these collections have been stored in poured concrete structures or in fire-rated chambers within a structure protected by traditional, wet fire protection systems. For all of them we have specified clean agent systems - Novec - with a VESDA early detection system. For the paper and vellum artifacts, including unique artifacts as well as extremely rare ones- discharge of any amount of water places them at extreme risk of irreparable damage or loss, with expensive freeze drying the only recourse for an opportunity to recover them. Because your collection seems to be comprised of durable material artifacts, you could consider a water misting system in lieu of either dry or wet deluge systems.

    Gregory Friesen FAIA
    Colorado Springs CO

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