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Prometheus Drenched (work in progress)

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Prometheus Drenched (work in progress)
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“Half the time we’re gone but we don’t know where.”
                            Paul Simon


                                                        Prometheus Drenched
Six days of sitting in a room pretending to listen to firemen talk about fires. That’s my penance for being on the losing side in a turf war between the plumbing and fire sprinkler contractors. I will receive a license to do the work we plumbers have been doing for well over a century, but merely out of “sprink” spite, before being grandfathered in, they have sentenced me to forty-eight hours of firemen talking about fires.

Why firemen? Because in every part of the country there is an Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ) over fire sprinkler design and installation. In California it is generally the local fire department. But firemen have (unsurprisingly) very little interest in fire sprinklers, what they’re really interested in is fires.

For six interminable days I learned that firemen really love fires! Fires are their life -- they can talk about fires day after day, even to a room full of plumbers who are putting their heads on the tables. Firemen love to look at photos and films and videos of fires and talk about all the ways fires can start. And firemen are hands-on in their love of fires. To practice putting out fires they burn down houses, barns and other small buildings, and they like to look at those pictures too. The phrase that kept popping into my mind was “...like a moth to the flame.”

One scary thing about fires is that if a fire starts in your house and it bursts into open flames, you will probably have no more than two minutes to get out before the smoke, heat and lack of oxygen will kill you. We watched movies of fires starting in wastebaskets and the entire house engulfed in flames in those few minutes. Convincing, but it seemed like an expensive way to make a simple point.

Automatic fire sprinkler systems were invented in the latter part of the 19th century and they were designed and installed by plumbers. There had been marginally effective deluge sprinklers going back to 1800, but they were simply pipes with holes drilled into them and a manual valve to turn the water on in case of fire. Plumbers continued to do this work for over a hundred years. But over time a subset of plumbers appeared who specialized in fire sprinklers. And they formed their own associations, and as good American businessmen, they began engaging in protectionist maneuvers to limit competition.

We all-around plumbers fought back, having developed the industry and performed this work for generations. And we were really no threat to the sprinks because most of us only did incidental sprinkler work when it was part of a larger job. In the interests of full disclosure I must admit that we plumbers, on occasion, have erected certain protectionist walls against scoundrels like handymen, homeowners and all the other trades. But in this matter we did not prevail. Perhaps their lobbyist in Sacramento was bigger than our lobbyist in Sacramento.  Or perhaps he was the same guy, but they paid him more. I’m from Chicago, I know how these things work.

A compromise was reached in which we were grandfathered in, but the innocent unborn plumbing contractors will not be. But the deal (spite!) for becoming our own grandfathers was having to sit in a room for six days listening to firemen talk about fires. And a half day of an engineer teaching us how to manually calculate the designs, which we already knew well enough for our purposes -- and something even more ridiculous, for years the harder calculations have been done by inexpensive software, so even the sprinkler guys didn’t do them anymore.

For a hundred years fire sprinklers were designed like a tree. Very large trunk pipes branching into medium-sized pipes, branching to smaller and smaller pipes going to every space in the building. All calculated so that allowing for pressure loss from rise and the friction of the water against the pipes (yes, running water has measurable friction), and the number of bends (more friction), there would still be the necessary flow required to douse a fire given the type of construction, contents and use of the building. But then computers appeared and the sprinkler mavens asked the computers to do the design, and to everyone’s amazement the computers said forget the tree, make a grid of pipes so the water is coming from two directions, much more efficient and you don’t need such large pipes. This might have been one of the first occasions when computers demonstrated actual intelligence and usefulness.

Did you ever wonder what the pumper fire trucks do? You probably haven’t, but I’ll tell you anyway. One of their functions is to take control of the fire sprinkler system in a building. When sprinklers go off, in most cases because a glass or metal plug in the sprinkler head has melted from the heat, about 25 gallons of water come out of it, per minute. That’s a lot of water, but nothing compared to what the pumper can do. Water mains typically provide 50-100 pounds of pressure. But when the firemen hook their hoses from the fire hydrant to the pumper and from the pumper to the Siamese connection on the outside wall of a building that has fire sprinklers, they can jack the pressure up to 300 pounds. A clapper valve in the sprinkler system closes so that they aren’t pumping water back into the water main, and they have complete control over the system in the burning building. How cool is that? But not worth six days of listening to them talk about it.

I gradually migrate to the back of the room where I can carry on low conversations with my irreverant friends who aren’t even pretending to listen to the firemen-instructors. Firemen may be boring, but that does not diminish our admiration of them. After all, they are, one and all, ready to go into a burning building to rescue bums like us. And it is an unhealthy profession leading to a shorter lifespan than most trades. On the plus side, they get to spend most of their time sitting around talking about what they’re going to make for dinner. They publish cookbooks of firehouse recipes! Can you imagine a cookbook of plumber’s recipes? And most of them have second careers or businesses they run on their days off, which are plentiful.

Quite a few firemen moonlight in the construction trades, as carpenters, electricians or plumbers. They are just terrible plumbers, the ones I have met. The other trades I’m not sure about, but I’d imagine they are equally bad at them too. There are firemen who run real estate businesses. I’ve met one who is a lawyer. Many of them come from families in which quite a few men have been firemen or cops. A surprising number of them are quite well-to-do from their enterprises and the fact that in most big cities they are well-paid, and can retire in middle-age with generous pensions. Fire fighting is a hide-bound trade, very resistent to new technology. I suppose that might be a reflection of the danger of something not working during a fire. If you’ve ever put on a fireman’s turnout coat, for example, you will be astounded at how heavy it is. It feels like it is lined with lead.

The fire sprinkler industry, on the other hand, loves new technology. From the time the first systems were installed in factories two hundred years ago, it has been steady innovation all the way. Fire sprinklers determine many things about the construction and design of buildings. With sprinklers you can increase all kinds of hazards, like the distance from a hotel room to an exit, or exposed wood ceilings, or the number of people you can have in a large space. And of course, the fire insurance cost of many kinds of buildings would be prohibitive without them.

The fire sprinker industry snots who are putting us through this mind-numbing exercise are extremely productive and efficient, I will give them that. They have high-speed everything and are quick to adopt any new tool or technique. The systems generally arrive with all the pipes precut and labeled and many of the fittings installed on the pipes. Although fire sprinklers are gradually becoming world-wide, until recently this has basically been an American and Canadian industry, with the UK running somewhat behind.

How well do fire sprinklers work? Unbelievably well, in over a hundred years there has never been a major loss of life by fire in a building with a working system. If you saw some of the movies showing sprinklers going off you would understand why. The only negative is that when an older system made of steel pipes and iron fittings goes off, thousands of gallons of rusty water can do a lot of damage.

Firemen and insurance companies especially like sprinklers because in high-rise buildings, above the first half a dozen floors, there is really no way to fight a fire. Since you are well aware (aren’t you?) that city water pressure will only carry water up about five stories, how do they work in a modern high rise? Big pumps in the basement, extremely big pumps, and large tanks of water in case of an earthquake breaking the water mains in the street, and backup generators to run the pumps if the electricity also goes off.

The notion of a building protecting itself against fire has been extended to much of new housing. The more homes and apartments are protected by sprinklers, the fewer fire stations and fireman a local government has to provide. Single family home sprinkler systems are actually quite simple and inexpensive to install during construction because they are made of flexible plastic pipe and only a few simple controls are required. Why are you putting your head on the table? Hey, are you sleeping?