Help From Overhead

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A sprinkler system can save lives, protect buildings and, when not in use, go completely unnoticed. But, still, many barns do not have them. Should you install a sprinkler system and if so, what would it cost?

The Truth About Sprinklers

Contrary to what Hollywood would have us believe, when a fire breaks out only the sprinkler directly above the fire is activated—it is activated by heat, not smoke. According to Roland Huggins, VP of Engineering for the American Fire Sprinkler Association, on average, 70 percent of fires are controlled by a single sprinkler, while 85 percent are controlled by three or less sprinklers. When animals perish, the most common causes are smoke, particulates, and carbon monoxide, not by the fire itself. Sprinklers, by putting out the fire, help contain those toxins and smoke.

If you don’t have sprinklers, don’t wait for the fire department, warns Huggins. “By the time the fire department gets to your barn, it may be too late for some horses. Barns are primed for rapid expansion [of fire] because of the combustible construction and the fact that there are a lot of flammable materials, such as hay, stored inside. The potential for losing the barn or some of the horses is pretty high if you depend solely on the fire department. The sprinklers, being immediate, would offset that risk.”

Wet Versus Dry

There are two types of sprinkler systems; wet and dry. A wet system is one in which there is water in the pipes at all times. These units are ideal for warmer regions of the country. For areas where freezing occurs, a dry system is necessary. In a dry system, the pipes are filled with compressed air, which is released when the system is activated. Water is then forced into the pipes for release through the sprinkler heads.

Is one system better than the other? “Wet and dry systems are equally acceptable, but you’re going to have a little larger fire with the dry system because it takes a little extra time for the water to get to the fire,” says Huggins. “When the sprinkler is activated, it has to drain out a certain amount of air before the valve will open to let water into the pipe, and then the water has to travel down the pipe to get to the head. Your level of protection with a dry system for those that are intimate to the fire is not as great, so you have a better chance of losing a horse that is in the immediate vicinity of the fire.”

For that reason, you can install a wet system that is filled with non-toxic antifreeze. “It is still considered a wet pipe, but it doesn’t freeze during the winter,” says Huggins.

Your Water Source

Your water source largely determines the complexity and cost of your new system. If your farm has municipal water, then you will save a significant amount of money. Unfortunately, many stables don’t have town water and must rely on another source, such as a nearby pond. A pond will work fine as long as it doesn’t freeze completely during the winter. You will also need a pump, which will have to be protected from the cold. Will you have sufficient electrical power to run the pump? If not, then you’ll need a diesel pump.

Will a well work? Says Huggins, “Wells are not a good option because they have such a low volume of water. Generally, they’ll pull 20 gpm (gallons per minute) and you’ll need about 350 gpm for your sprinkler system.”

If there are no water sources on your property, you’ll need a holding tank. How large depends on several factors. “To figure out the size of your tank,” explains Ken Wagoner, who designs sprinkler systems for Parsley Consulting Engineers in Escondido, Calif., “we’d look not so much at the square footage of the building as the amount of combustibles and hazards [wood vs. metal, hay, etc.]. We’d then look at the density of water over a certain area, providing the minimum amount of water you would need. It would take approximately 0.25 gallons per square foot over an area that is a minimum of 3,000 square feet. That would be 750 gallons a minute, and you’d want at least a 120-minute supply, which is almost 90,000 gallons of water. You’re not going to put that inside a building!”

Retrofitting Your Barn

How hard is it to install a system in an existing barn? “There is a difference,” notes Wagoner, “between installations in new and existing barns. The primary difference is that in a new building you can install the system without the other building elements being in your way. For example, you can bring a lift truck into the building to get your piping into the ceiling without any interference. With an existing facility, you’d have to use ladders, which adds time so labor costs go up. Another concern with an existing barn is that the owner doesn’t want what is already there damaged, which means the installer must take extra precautions. Also, it can be difficult to work around the horses, the barn workers, and the trainers, so you’ll pay a premium for that.”


Your first expense would be in the design of your system. “For design of a 25,000-square-foot barn,” explains Wagoner, “with an office, tack room, storage and feed area, and a main corridor down the center, my fee would be between $2,000 and $3,000. Two factors would affect that cost: first, if the barn is wood, there are certain things that I must do that would increase my design costs. The other issue in California and other parts of the country is protecting the system against earthquakes.”

The cost of the actual system, notes Don Kaufman of Kaufman Fire Protection Systems in Tempe, Ariz., is determined by several elements. “Wet systems are easier to put in than dry systems, so that affects the price. With a dry system you have control valves, an air compressor, and you have to wire it up, which all adds to the price. For a metal barn [wood would cost more] of 10,000 square feet the cost of a wet system would run around $1.50 to $2 a square foot. This price does not include the cost of utilities, supply lines, or your water supply. A dry system will push the cost up to $2.25 to $3 a square foot, depending on what you have to do to make it run.

“When retro-fitting an existing barn,” continues Kaufman, “you can expect to pay about 15 percent to 20 percent more. It depends somewhat on whether the owner is in a position to get the stable vacant so we don’t have to worry about the horses and we can work for several days uninterrupted.”

A significant expense is added if you don’t have municipal water. For example, Kaufman estimates that a holding tank for a 10,000-square-foot arena would need to hold about 100,000 gallons of water. “For a tank, I’d estimate $60,000 to $70,000 to set it up,” he says, “then you’ll need a pump, power to run it plus the building to house it in so it won’t freeze. I’d say you’re talking about a minimum of $200,000 and up.”

Your horses are your most important investment. Sprinkler systems, although costly, can protect them from the horrors of a barn fire. It is certainly worth investigating.