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What are Fire Sprinklers?

By Adam Hill
Updated Feb 17, 2024
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Fire sprinklers are devices which together form a fire sprinkler system, using water to extinguish a fire underneath it. Fire sprinklers are designed to discharge water when a high temperature is detected. They are commonly installed in commercial buildings as well as homes, and any place where there is a need to protect lives and property from fire.

Each sprinkler head is attached to a pipe and points downward from the ceiling into the room or building which it is to protect. The opening on the sprinkler head is held shut, either by a heat-sensitive glass bulb, or by a metal alloy with a specific melting point. When the sprinkler is activated, the water comes down and hits a deflector, which points the water down towards the fire’s point of origin. Many types of deflectors are available, which are capable of directing the spray of water in different directions or patterns.

Sometimes, movies and television shows depict fire sprinklers as activating all at once. In reality, this is not usually the case because most automatic fire sprinklers will only operate individually in a fire. This provides clear advantages over a so-called “deluge” system where all of the fire sprinklers activate together. The first is that when only one sprinkler is activated, the water pressure is maximized over the fire, helping to put out the fire sooner. Secondly, other areas of the structure are saved the needless water damage that would occur from the knee-jerk activation of multiple sprinkler heads.

The first fire sprinklers were invented and used in 1874 by Henry Parmlee of New Haven, Connecticut. At the time, he was president of the Mathusek Piano Works in New Haven. His invention was designed to protect his business, and was motivated partially in response to the high insurance rates of the time. Parmlee patented his invention but did not see as much success with it at first. This was mainly due to the fact that in 1874, very few people could afford to install fire sprinklers. Parmlee eventually gained the influence he needed to widely market his invention, but it wasn’t long before newer, better versions were invented which replaced Parmlee’s design.

Fire sprinklers are being used increasingly in single-family homes as an efficient and economical way to protect against fire damage and loss of life. In these cases, insurance companies will very often discount the homeowner’s premium for installing a sprinkler system. This is because sprinklers will not only contain a fire quickly, but will also use much less water to do so than a fire department hose would. Less water used translates into less water damage and lower repair costs after the fire.

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Discussion Comments
By anon165952 — On Apr 06, 2011

Please add original history: The first fire sprinkler (patent 3606) was designed by Sir William Congreve in the UK and installed in the Theatre Royal in 1812 (Drury Lane). It was a system of perforated pipes with a large water reservoir and was manually activated.

In 1872 the first automatic fire sprinkler patent was registered by Phillip Pratt of Abington, MA, USA.

Henry Pamalee improved on Pratt's design in 1874.

Fire sprinklers have been in use in the UK since 1812 and in use in the USA since 1872.

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