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The Evolution of Fire Sprinkler Systems


Fire Sprinkler Systems – How it All Began

In the early 19th century due to the inability of fire watchmen to be on hand immediately in an emergency, a way of delivering water to a fire as soon as was practically possible needed to be developed. A rudimentary system of water sprinklers was installed in the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane in 1812. It wasn’t automatic, but was connected to a reservoir of water outside the building. If there was a fire, the valves would be turned on, and water would pass through the pipes which contained a series of holes, dampening the flames.

Automating the Sprinklers

It took another 60 years before a system was devised that could be automatically set off when a fire was detected. It was invented by the owner of a piano factory, Henry S. Parmalee, in Connecticut, as he wanted it to protect his products in the event of a fire. It contained solder in the place of holes in the pipes which subsequently melted if heated, leaving water to flow through the newly created holes.

This design was perfected and patented by Frederick Grinnell who developed a sprinkler with increased sensitivity to heat.


There are two main misconceptions everyone always attributes to fire sprinkler systems:

  • If one sprinkler is set off, all of the sprinklers in the building are also set off
  • They are designed to put out a fire completely

Firstly, each sprinkler is independent and will only activate if the fire is beneath it. Secondly, the water is usually not enough to put the fire out completely, so it was initially designed just to contain a fire until the watchmen, or latterly the fire brigade, can get to it.

Improvements over the Years

The original sprinkler head had metal or solder links which broke if heated by a fire, causing the water to flow. Now, sprinkler heads are more likely to have glass bulbs in place which are heat sensitive. They contain a liquid which expands on heating and this breaks the glass, causing water to flow out of the sprinkler heads over the fire.

An alternative to this is a quick-response sprinkler head which can be used in buildings that need a faster response to contain a fire, for example schools. The reaction time is decreased by making the bulb smaller, therefore necessitating less heat to break it. Another improvement has been to have the water spread out further from the sprinkler head. This means that it will climb higher up walls, which curtails the fire and reduces temperatures.

Benefits of Having a Fire Sprinkler System

According to the National Fire Protection Association, installing fire sprinkler systems in commercial buildings significantly reduces the damage caused by a fire. So much so that it can cost four times more damage in restaurants without a sprinkler system, than one with a system installed. As they are clearly beneficial in the event of a fire, there are more calls for it to be a requirement in residential buildings as well. In an effort to improve safety, Wales was the first country to make this compulsory, and now others like the US are following their lead, hopefully making fire deaths a thing of the past.

For further information on fire sprinkler systems please contact Triangle Sprinkler Systems, one of the UK’s leading specialists in Residential & Domestic Sprinkler Systems.

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