By Jim Mickowski
Jim Mickowski, an engineer with PSJ Engineering, has more than 25 years of experience in the design and installation of fire suppression systems. His experience ranges from working on stadiums, museums and office buildings to high-security, high-risk areas in correctional facilities and nuclear facilities where there is “no access allowed.”
Can you tell us about your company?
PSJ Engineering is a mechanical engineering company specializing in the design of fire protection building systems as well as heating, ventilating, air conditioning and plumbing. We have been designing fire protection systems for 25 years. PSJ is headquartered in Milwaukee with an office in Madison, Wisconsin. We’ve been fortunate to have a wide gamut of projects from stadiums to office buildings. The company has completed work for Miller Park (home of the Milwaukee Brewers) and the Milwaukee Museum.
How do you define a no-access-allowed area?
We have designed fire protection systems for penal and nuclear reactor control rooms and would consider these areas high-security, no-access-allowed areas. You can also classify control rooms and areas that house computer infrastructure, where computers need to be protected from water and vandalism, as no-access-allowed areas.
What types of fire safety systems and products do you recommend for these types of projects?
We recommend single and double interlock pre-action systems, because they have many benefits. They provide early warning. They are relatively low cost, simple to install, easy to operate and maintain, and you don’t have to consider room construction or HVAC, as is the case when using a clean agent system. We’ve had a lot of problems activating clean agent systems and getting them to work correctly. The envelope that those systems require depends on the HVAC and building construction. It’s very difficult to keep the building construction tight enough. The air has to go somewhere, so the HVAC system has to complement a clean agent system. It gets a little complicated.
A single or double pre-action with trouble alarms before the water actually enters the piping gives maintenance or supervisory personnel an opportunity to investigate and then take appropriate action. The best way to minimize impact is to provide early warning so people can investigate and take action.
How do you design for an area that is to remain off-limits to most?
Typically, no-access areas are small areas in relationship to the whole project. Those areas should not affect the overall impact of construction cost. We design each area as a pod. In that pod, we design the system so there has to be a smoke or heat detector activated before the water even enters the piping. And then you still have the final safeguard: the sprinkler head. The water doesn’t discharge until the sprinkler heads open up. We are trying to prevent accidental discharge.
For instance, a penal control room is a very small area with numerous cells. The cells obviously are vandal resistant but are not really high security. A lot of times, a prisoner will knock off a sprinkler head and get a discharge of water. Sure, it’s a pain to fix, but it’s not causing any catastrophic damage. The penal control room, however, is the no-access area. If the computers or the security hardware are damaged, you are talking about infrastructure issues that could cost large amounts of money.
I think money and cost to repair go hand in hand when designing a project with no-access-allowed areas. That is what you are trying to eliminate. You are trying to take the maximum safeguards to protect that equipment. Can you imagine if chaos erupted due to fire, and someone got into a penal control room? They could release the cells and doors. You need to protect the electronics and control mechanisms. Treating each of those areas as pods helps secure that area and minimize cost in the event of a fire.
“Can you imagine if chaos erupted due to fire, and someone got into a penal control room? They could release the cells and doors. You need to protect the electronics and control mechanisms.”
— Jim Mickowski, Engineer, PSJ Engineering
So why wouldn’t you use an aspiration system in these areas instead?
It’s not that we wouldn’t use it. We just prefer wet suppression. Aspiration is also a simple system; but it is smoke detection, not fire suppression. It certainly has its place. Incipient fire detection, if a project can afford it, is one of the nicest luxuries any owner can afford. The false alarms caused by dust are a thing of the past.
What types of challenges do you have with no-access-allowed areas?
There is always the challenge to protect the computers. Computers should not be subject to water exposure. We opt to design water suppression systems in a computer room all the time – and we put sprinkler systems in computer rooms all the time. The key in the computer room is to turn the power off before water is discharged. Computers can withstand getting wet provided the power is not on. It’s when the computer power is on and the water shorts them out that you have a problem. We use a combination of water flow switches that are in the piping; when the water comes into the piping, it turns off all power to the computers. And don’t forget the battery backup.
What specifics must you consider when designing fire suppression systems for no-access-areas?
In today’s economy, you want to open it up for every qualified individual to be able to maintain the system you are designing. It only benefits the owner’s maintenance budget. If you have a highly specialized system that only the factory can maintain, it can drive up costs. We are firm believers in keeping it simple; wet suppression is a simple system. It’s important for the maintenance people to understand the system and the operation of it. Typically, the maintenance staff has not been trained on high-tech fire protection systems, so we try to make sure we design the simplest system that will perform in accordance with the user’s requirements.
“Incipient fire detection, if a project can afford it, is one of the nicest luxuries any owner can afford. The false alarms caused by dust are a thing of the past.”
— Jim Mickowski, Engineer, PSJ Engineering
What advice do you have for others in your field when designing a fire safety system for high-security/no-access-allowed projects?
The fire protection engineer must look at it from the perspective of the person who has to maintain it. A sophisticated system is not good if there is no one who knows how to maintain it. Meet the user to verify that he understands the system and see if he has any comments. It has been our experience that if the user supports the design, you have a happy client. Have a colleague look at the design with a fresh set of eyes and get his comments. The building manager should be able to contract any fire protection contractor to maintain the system if they cannot do the maintenance themselves. Keep these questions in mind:
- Will maintenance personnel understand the way it works?
- Is it simple enough?
- Is there something that I can do to help the maintenance person understand?
- Does your client want to subcontract the maintenance?
- Will all fire protection contractors have the ability to maintain the system?
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