Why does fire sprinkler water smell and is the odor hazardous?

Posted: Friday, June 5, 2015

Why does fire sprinkler water smell and is the odor hazardous?

We have something in the fire sprinkler industry that we call the “Baptism”.  It happens to every fire sprinkler fitter sometime in their first couple of years in the business and generally happens when they are working on an older building that is in middle of construction.  I can’t say for certain, but I think that fitters may actually plan Baptism’s, but I have never been able to get any of my guys to admit it.  It has to be the right situation, where a little water on the floor won’t cause a problem. 

Basically, the poor unsuspecting helper opens up a pipe, or pulls a fire sprinkler that has some trapped water behind it.  The water in older systems tends to stagnate and the water in the pipe will become a thick black, smelly, sludge.  There is nothing that will tickle an experienced fire sprinkler man’s fancy like seeing his helper covered from head to toe in black stinky sludge.  I have watched full grown men literally fall over laughing after witnessing a Baptism.

Then there is the “Walk of Shame”.  For some reason the fitter always finds are reason to come back to the shop that day and pick up some missing part.  Of course, the fitter really just wants to show off his freshly Baptized helper.  It is part of a fitter’s coming of age.  It happens to all of us eventually.   

The smell is hydrogen sulfide which is present in all stagnant water.  For some reason the cutting oil in sprinkler pipe tends to really intensify the smell.  That and the fact that the water may have been standing in the pipe for decades can cause a pretty bad rotten egg smell at times. 

We have worked in many existing office buildings and sometimes we open a pipe that hasn’t been drained in a while.  Sometimes this smell is mild, and sometimes it is strong.  Although we always warn our customers of the smell, we have had buildings cleared and fire trucks called due to the smell, “overwhelming” someone with overly sensitive olfactory faculties.  I am not saying that rotten egg smell is pleasant, but it won’t kill you, or even harm you.  In fact, we wrote to the American Fire Sprinkler Association for a formal investigation and technical interpretation on what exactly causes the smell and whether it is dangerous. They agreed, in writing, that the smell is harmless. 

How do you minimize this smell?  There are ways to help mitigate the smell.   Simply draining and refilling the system can help.  There are Nitrogen Generators that will inject nitrogen into systems that will help with Microbiologically Induced Corrosion.  It will also help with the rotten egg smell. 

So, if you have someone swooning due to the smell of your fire sprinkler system, remember, go outside and take a couple of deep breaths, and thank God you aren’t a fire sprinkler helper.

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