The automatic fire sprinkler has remained fundamentally unchanged since Frederick Grinnell invented the first practical sprinkler in 1882. In 1890, he invented the glass disc sprinkler, which is effectively the design we know and use today. However, the lack of innovation in fire sprinkler design since its invention is partly due to the nature of the fire industry, which is understandably conservative, given the severe consequences of failure. But with new technology, we are seeing a transformation in many of these products, which is what opens the door for IoT applications in fire safety.
The New Fire Sprinkler
Many regions around the world are moving towards a future in which all new residential builds are mandated with installing automatic fire sprinklers. Their life-saving ability is undeniable, but numerous studies estimate the effectiveness of fire sprinkler systems ranges from approximately 70 percent to 93 percent. An admiral figure, but with significant room for improvement when you compare them to another life safety device, say an airbag, which has an effectiveness of 99.9 percent.
But those success rates for sprinklers plummet in households, where they fail 1 in 10 times, primarily because they are largely ignored and are designed to blend in and be forgotten. 64 percent of failures are due to the system being shut off, with another leading cause being lack of maintenance.
Solving issues related household sprinkler systems, such as a lack of maintenance and leakage, is difficult, especially in an industry defined by a culture opposing adoption of new ideas. However, change is not impossible—a look at how the insurance industry underwent a structural change can provide a framework for understanding how similar change will occur in the fire safety industry.
A Framework for Understanding the Fire Safety Industry
The insurance business of assessing risk, collecting premiums, and paying claims began in 1861 when a group of underwriters sold the first paper policies to protect London homeowners against losses from fire. This formed the basis of the model adopted by the vast majority of companies, who offered variants of the same thing once a benchmark was established.
Today, the winners in the industry have the best rates. Digital technologies allow insurers to set themselves apart from the pack; however, these technologies weren’t easily adopted. Spreadsheets and manual data input between systems reluctantly gave way to automated software to improve accuracy and reduce bottlenecks in insurance processes. It was a surprisingly difficult transition to make because, as often happens in legacy industries, only a finite group of people understood the legacy knowledge behind the established models, whilst others feared the risk of losing data, functionality and customer satisfaction whilst newer products were being introduced.
With the integration of technologies like Artificial Intelligence, Blockchain, IoT, and drones entering the insurance space, the sector is being forced to rethink its model. The market is maturing to realize that insurance technology has huge potential to revolutionize the industry with more and more mature firms investing in emerging technologies. This isn’t happening in isolation.
We’re seeing the same glimmers of innovation in the fire sprinkler industry.
Fire Safety IoT Applications
There are already a select few companies in the fire industry who are designing their products to be IoT ready and looking to address the problem of neglect that results in traditional sprinkler failures.
By designing a smarter solution that isn’t only called upon during an emergency, we can evolve the functionality of the fire sprinkler. Future sprinklers could add features to engage homeowners and give value and services beyond just an emergency situation, which complements device upkeep. Additionally, other sensors will be added to fire sprinklers to turn sprinkler systems into home safety systems. Once connected to the cloud, these sprinklers can instantly provide a smart safety system for homes and buildings. For example, hear sensors can be added to sprinklers to efficiently control the temperature of one’s home.
Smart sprinklers can also help with the aftermath of a fire—there are companies using advanced sprinkler systems to connect to the insurance industry. These sprinklers are able to report activity relating to the fire to be stored in a “black box”, offering a chance to realize the scope and cause of the damage while simultaneously analyzing any preventive measures for the future. This makes insurance claims easier for all parties and more cost-effective. Technology like this could also compare relative customer risk and propensity to have a fire by the frequency of “close calls” of the suppression activation.
What makes the fire sprinkler so interesting is it is a one-time, sunk cost within many homes, unlike other smart home devices which are dependent on consumer buy-in. You have to have a fire sprinkler to meet building code in many areas, and 2999 of 3000 homes that don’t have a serious fire in a given year see no value out of their sprinkler systems besides peace of mind. Admittedly, fires are more frequent in higher risk demographics and building categories, but there’s more value to be had out of sprinklers that can be unleashed with the advent of fire safety IoT applications.
IoT can transform the fire safety industry by extracting greater value from a product that’s a regulatory and/or insurance requirement in all buildings and homes: the fire sprinkler. These changes will force a departure from the well-trodden product first invented in the 1800s, but hopefully we’ll end up with a better solution centered around the needs and requirements of modern homes and people. This becomes more and more interesting as new products in the fire safety industry help minimize risks, help with insurance claims, and performs additional functions to protect people and their property.