Fire Sprinkler Requirements for a New Woodshop

      including a story of one disastrous fire. December 14, 2005

We need to build a new building for our production. We are considering 15,000 square feet, but we have a problem. The local building inspector tells us that any building over 2,500 square feet containing a woodshop is required to have a fire sprinkler. The property where I want to build would require $45,000 to extend the 6" water main to our property and the sprinkler would cost about another $30,000 - $40,000. With all of the other expenses involved, I'm looking for options. Does anyone have experience or suggestions on ways around the code or fire suppression alternatives?

I have no problem putting a self contained fire system in my paint booth but it is just too much money for the whole building. I currently operate in an old building without a sprinkler and have not had any problem maintaining insurance. What is everyone else required to do in their wood shops?

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor A:
In my city, sprinklers were required for new construction over 9,000 square feet. When building my new place I considered three 9,000 square feet. buildings with 20 ft covered breezeways/walkways between each one, thus meeting the fire break code between buildings. They can hookup many different ways. Another alternative was to buy an existing building, built before the new codes, where a system would not be required.
Lastly, I could move out of the city and away from the city codes concerning sprinklers. I considered another county where I own land 12 miles away. There are no building codes there, in fact, no planning and zoning department at all. But my builder convinced me the same building in the city would be much more valuable for a future sale and easier to sell as well. So, I built in the city and spent 85K on suppression.

Today, I'm out in that next county in a one man shop and glad to be away from all those codes, regulations, taxes, salesmen, inspections, break-ins, etc. 2,500 square feet seems small for such regulation. If that proved to be higher then the separate small building arrangement might work for you.

From contributor B:
Even if you move into an existing building they can make you bring it up to current codes. You can build a large building with 2,500 square feet bays separated by fire rated walls and automatic fire doors (roll ups). You would have to work around those walls but if you planned your work flow it could be an advantage to have the walls and separation of space. In the future they might just fall down, and probably no one would notice.

From contributor C:
I recall seeing a tank based sprinkler system. It might have used foam in place of water.

From contributor D:
You need to check a little deeper into the regulations and taxes. In New Jersey after they require you to put in the system, they tax you on it, so much per sprinkler head. Their reasoning is that you are saving money on your insurance, plus you pay for the demand your system makes on the town water system should you ever have a fire. However, if you have a fire and the water is not there to save your building, you have no recourse against the town.

From contributor E:
I ran into this same situation last year, when I added on to my shop. I hired an engineering consultant to interpret the code for the county. The end result was no sprinklers, but all the dust-creating machines had to consume no more than 2,500 square feet of the building. This was fine for me as I went CNC the same year and was able to eliminate many saws and drills. After all of that, the county has not even come to see if I am in compliance.

From contributor F:
Here is another viewpoint. I've been a volunteer firefighter for almost thirty years. I was the local fire chief for 2 years. We built a steel 5,000 square feet building in 2000, thinking that steel wouldn’t burn and if we kept a clean shop, a fire would never happen. I had a limited protection fire suppression system for the high hazard area - spray booth/finishing room.

In August of 2003, we were painting and glazing a $54K kitchen in the AM. We finished by 2:30 pm, and we cleaned the shop. We swept the floor, scooped up the sawdust and put it into a trash can. A very responsible employee who was emptying the trash cans looked into one trash can under a workbench and saw only 6" of sawdust in a 30 gallon trash can, and decided to let it wait until it’s full. Everyone went home for the weekend. Saturday morning at 4:30 AM my firefighting pager was activated by an alarm system at our shop. A small trash can fire had started due to spontaneous combustion from the linseed oil in the glaze that had dripped on the floor, that was swept up with the sawdust and put into the trash can that was inspected and determined to be not full enough to require emptying.

This caused a $418,000.00 insurance claim, shut us down for seven weeks and took 6 months to sort thru the insurance paperwork. Ironically, even though I was a firefighter, I did not want a sprinkler head to go off and ruin a client's kitchen. The kitchen cabinetry loss due to the fire was only approximately $3,500.00. Repairing the building, HVAC, electric (three phase), adding new insulation, replacing the three year old standing seam metal roof and heat stressed purlins was over $400K. Since then, we invested $ 30,000.00 so that this will not happen again. It all comes down to the price you are willing to pay and the risk you are willing to take. Spend the money and sleep well at night.

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