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Physical protection is the cornerstone of property loss prevention. This is especially important in the waste, recycling and scrap metal industries. Because of the mixture of materials being processed, these industries are prone to fires; however, physical protection often is overlooked by operators in light of its cost and the poor guidance offered by building engineers, municipal codes and insurance professionals. As a result, these industries often have been affected by fires, resulting in poor press and higher property insurance premiums.

Categories of protection

Proper physical protection can reduce and even inhibit major damage when fires do occur. Physical protection helps to detect and suppress fire, giving local fire departments the time to respond and keep damage to a minimum.

Physical protection is broken down into two categories:

1. Detection and warning – Typical detection systems use rate-of-rise or fixed-temperature heat monitors to determine if a fire is starting. If the heat detected by the system rises at a higher than normal rate, an alarm sounds and an alert is sent to a central station monitor to notify the local fire department. These monitors are Underwriters Laboratories (UL) Listed and FM Group (FM) Approved, meaning they are acceptable to insurance companies as fire detection and warning systems.

Other monitoring and detection devices include smoke detectors (not good in industrial settings) and infrared cameras. Some infrared cameras are not UL Listed or FM Approved and should not be used inside transfer stations, material recovery facilities or heavy scrap processing equipment as a primary fire detection source. They are better suited for monitoring heat increases outdoors.

2. Fire suppression – Various fire suppression systems can be considered based on building occupancy and use:

      a. Manual fire suppression

      • i. fire hydrants and hoses; and
      • ii. fire extinguishers.


      b. Automatic sprinkler systems

      • i. wet system;
      • ii. dry system; and
      • ii. foam system.

Misconceptions about sprinkler systems

Sprinkler systems protect buildings and business assets by suppressing fire rather than extinguishing it entirely, with the intention being that the fire department will finish the job.

Many recycling and waste facility owners believe all systems are equal. The type of system (wet, which is filled with pressurized water, or dry, where the pipes are filled with pressurized air or nitrogen that holds back the water) is driven largely by local ordinances and whether the space is conditioned. Facility owners tend to consider only local fire ordinances and not the building occupancy or the materials being processed or stored when regarding sprinkler systems.

CIA has seen many facilities that have full sprinkler systems but not the density of heads or water pressure needed to deal with the material being processed. Property insurance underwriters consider an inadequately protected building equal to an unprotected building. Such systems could turn underwriters away from a risk entirely.

One CIA customer has a $300,000 mixed recycling facility (electronics, plastics and nonferrous metals). The sprinkler system was updated about five years ago (before my involvement with the client). However, the local ordinance required a lower volume sprinkler head (a less-expensive type) than the type that was included in the original system. The client did not consult with a loss-control engineer from its insurance company at the time and the company’s sprinkler contractor merely followed the local ordinance. When the client’s insurance program came up for renewal, underwriters did not consider the building sprinkled in light of the lower density heads. As a result, the insurance program for that building had to be separated and placed elsewhere, which resulted in an additional cost of 50 percent for this client compared with the prior year.

Most insurance companies have qualified loss-control engineers on staff to assist with sprinkler system design. (Click here for more on this topic.)

Alternative systems

Alternatives to automatic sprinkler and heat detection systems are available. Some of these solutions are good for outdoor use, managing heat and fire from piles of waste, scrap metal and auto shredder residue. Fire Rover is an example of one such system. It uses a combination of infrared camera technology and a centrally managed foam/water cannon to suppress fires in piles of material. While useful outdoors to help manage heat and fires, these systems are not UL Listed or FM Approved solutions and cannot replace automatic sprinkler systems. They also should not be used indoors. As such, insurance underwriters cannot consider these solutions part of a fire protection system and, thus, cannot give credits specific to them.

We urge readers to be measured and thoughtful when deciding on fire detection and fire suppression systems. Not all systems are the same, and facility operators must analyze their buildings, materials, access to water, water pressure and building conditions. Facility operators should use their insurance companies’ loss-control engineering services to ensure systems under consideration meet the facilities’ needs and the types of material stored.