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Fire Sprinkler Heads Guide: Types, Components, Differences

If you’ve got fire sprinklers on your mind - you start to notice fire sprinkler heads everywhere! Maybe you’ve got a new building or a retrofit that you know needs to happen soon (or you work in the industry like us). Once you start seeing them, you’ll notice a variety of different fire sprinkler heads - the ubiquitous things sticking out from ceilings & fire sprinkler pipes across the country.

Of course, the main purpose of a fire sprinkler head is to effectively disperse water in the case of a structure fire. That said, the architecture & interiors of buildings affect the functionality of fire sprinkler heads, as well as the aesthetic.

Fire sprinkler heads are just one of the many components of an effective, up-to-code, and reliable fire sprinkler systems. The type & specifications of the sprinkler heads must be balanced with all the other components to meet the needs of your particular building and its use. The expert fire sprinkler system designers at RCI Fire will work with you and the rest of your team to properly protect your building while keeping in mind the aesthetics & appearance of your building.

There are 4 common varieties of fire sprinkler heads: pendent, upright, sidewall & concealed - each with their own particular use. That said, there’s also a lot of similarities between fire sprinkler head types, so we’ll start there.

Fire Sprinkler Head Similarities & Components

There’s a few things that make a fire sprinkler head a fire sprinkler, they may evolve over time, but probably won’t go away any time soon.

  • Sealing Assembly/Plug - it keeps the water in!
    The fire sprinkler head sealing assembly has the most important job, keeping the water in the pipes (in a wet sprinkler system) until it is needed. The exact mechanism and function may differ slightly between models & manufacturers - but the reason is the same.
  • Heat-sensitive Activator - it lets the water out!
    The way fire sprinkler heads know when to release water is so simple in theory - where there’s heat, there’s fire. Each individual sprinkler head has a heat-sensitive ‘trigger’, usually a glass bulb or fusible metal link. This way, the heat sensitivity can be adjusted to break and release the seal at different temperatures.
  • Deflector - the fan-shaped thing at the end of the sprinkler head.
    The weird-shaped sprinkler head deflector is also critical to proper function. Without the deflector, the water would spray out the end of the sprinkler like a hose. The deflector spreads the water out over the space, and is designed very particularly to cover a certain amount of area with a certain amount of water.
  • Frame - the metal that holds it all together.
    The fire sprinkler head frame is the metal housing for the rest of the fire sprinkler head and its connection to the sprinkler pipe. Depending on the type, make & model, as well as the installation - your fire sprinkler head’s frame can be more or less visible in your building.
  • Escutcheon and/or Cover - more important than you might think!
    Fire sprinkler head covers or escutcheon (housings) may be separate pieces, but they should be considered as a set. In many cases, the covers & surroundings are critical to the designed function of the sprinkler head and must be installed correctly. There are 3 types of basic escutcheon: flat, adjustable or recessed.

Special Sprinkler Head Considerations:

Just like there are a few common types of fire sprinkler heads, there are also different fire sprinkler system varieties that can work slightly differently. Dry pipe sprinkler systems are not always filled with water, and may not have sealed sprinkler heads. Similarly, pre-action systems may have additional ‘triggers’ for the system in addition to head activators to further prevent water damage and accidents.

4 Common Fire Sprinkler Head Varieties

Pendent Fire Sprinkler Heads (sometimes spelled Pendant)

Probably the most common sprinkler head type, pendent fire sprinkler heads hang directly down from the sprinkler pipe. They are standard for a reason, as they are very good at efficiently dispersing water in a wide pattern. Pendent fire sprinkler heads remain visible once they are installed, although the visible amount of the frame, as well as the aesthetics and ‘obtrusiveness’ can vary with the make & model.

Because they are the most common, there are many variations of the pendent fire sprinkler head. Aside from the practical difference in activation temperature, amount of water released, and spray size/pattern - there are also many differences in size, finish, escutcheon & more.

Very similar to a concealed fire sprinkler head (coming up later), there are some models of flush pendent fire sprinkler heads that completely hide the sprinkler head in the ceiling. However, flush pendent sprinkler heads do not have any cover - and should not be used with one if they were not designed to!

A good fire sprinkler system designer like RCI will combine the regulatory & coverage needs of your building with the design & aesthetics.

Upright Fire Sprinkler Heads

Much as their name implies, upright fire sprinkler heads point upwards, out of the top of the sprinkler pipe - rather than downwards like a pendent head. Because they are above the fire sprinkler pipe, they can sometimes be used to navigate any obstructions in the building/room design - and they are also more protected from dust & ice collection.

Upright fire sprinkler heads are perfect for open ceilings, whether it is an industrial warehouse or a trendy restaurant. Of course, there are no options for recessed or covered upright sprinkler heads - but they can be hidden by the sprinkler pipe itself and don’t stand out among other ducts, pipes, wiring, etc.

Depending on your specific building, there are a variety of upright fire sprinkler heads. Warehouse or industrial buildings need sprinkler heads to accommodate high ceilings and large floor spaces, while modern offices or restaurants may be able to use smaller-profile, less obtrusive upright sprinkler heads.

Sidewall Fire Sprinkler Heads

As the name may suggest, sidewall fire sprinkler heads are mounted on their side, on the wall - not from the ceiling. Aside from their positioning, these sprinklers can also be identified by a half-moon, or solid rectangular, deflector to match their function. They are most often used when ceiling fire sprinkler pipe is not available or if obstructions cause problems for other types of sprinkler heads. Sidewall fire sprinkler heads are often designed to be used in narrow or otherwise small spaces like halls & closets.

Design & installation of sidewall sprinkler heads needs to be especially precise. They should only be mounted under level, flat ceilings - and must be mounted the correct distance from the ceiling. Like other sprinkler heads - do not paint or otherwise alter the sprinkler head, it can damage or affect the sprinkler head’s sensitivity. Luckily, there are a variety of practical & aesthetic options available, from different colors & coatings.

Concealed Sprinkler Heads

Concealed sprinkler heads use a recessed design along with a decorative cover or cap to completely hide sprinkler heads from view. This design is used when looks matter, and obvious fire sprinkler heads would disturb the professional look and aesthetics of an office building, conference room, or other building.

As the pinnacle of aesthetic fire sprinkler heads, there are a ton of different looks and options for concealed sprinkler head caps & covers: metallic, neutral, wood, even custom paint-matching in some cases. However, these are definitely not mix & match - even if they appear to fit at first. We mentioned it earlier, but it bears repeating, caps, escutcheons, and fire sprinkler heads are a set - they must all be designed to work together. Remember not to paint your covers (or sprinkler heads) under any circumstance - new caps can be installed if the design of your space changes.

Doesn’t the sprinkler cap prevent the water from coming out? No! Not as long as you are using the proper cap and it has been installed properly. Concealed sprinkler head caps are also temperature sensitive - usually about 20 degrees cooler than your sprinkler head’s heat-sensitive activator. In the case of a structure fire, the sprinkler cap detaches first, allowing the sprinkler to 1) accurately detect the temperature & 2) properly discharge water immediately upon triggering.

Fire Sprinkler Head Differences

Among all types of fire sprinkler heads, there can be differences depending on the situation. Most often these differences exist to meet the fire protection needs of different buildings, industries, and situations - but aesthetic choices also exist.

  • Temperature sensitivity -
    one of the most critical differences. Any type of sprinkler head can be set to a different heat sensitivity (and therefore when it will trigger) by adjusting the activator, either a liquid filled glass tube or fusible metal link.
  • Finish -
    corrosion-resistance is a common finish that may not be necessary for all fire sprinkler systems. Chemical coatings are used, as well as simple solutions like wax applications. Different aesthetic finishes also exist to maintain the look of your building.
  • Response time -
    quick response fire sprinklers utilize the same temperature sensitive activator, but in a thinner glass bulb. This means the fire sprinkler is ‘set’ to a temperature, but reacts more quickly when that temperature is reached. Commonly used in high-occupancy structures to better protect people, where even a few seconds make a difference.
  • Production & Aesthetics -
    new advancements in fire sprinkler look & feel are being made constantly to provide the same protection & safety in a more attractive or discreet package. Die-cast (as opposed to sand-cast) sprinklers have a more polished look, and slimmer/smaller sprinkler heads are available - with a large variety of covers & housings.

Choosing the Right Fire Sprinkler Head

You shouldn’t be selecting fire sprinkler heads, or designing fire sprinkler systems, without the proper design expertise - but it helps to know the basics so you are aware of your options. The right fire sprinkler designer, like RCI Fire of Phoenix, will manage the design so all regulations are met, while involving you and your team when choosing between aesthetic options - like sprinkler heads.

With any fire sprinkler system, or any fire protection component, the first priority is safety and ensuring your building is up-to-code. An expert fire protection designer with the proper training will identify the needs of your particular situation and work together with any other contractors, designers, or architects to best match your building’s design while protecting it from fire damage.

Contact RCI Fire for Fire Sprinkler Design in Phoenix & Arizona

If you’re looking for an expert fire sprinkler design company to help you in the Phoenix Metro, or anywhere in Arizona - contact RCI Fire online now or by calling (480) 894-8711. We’re available for 24/7 urgent support, and can provide you with a competitive fire sprinkler design quote. Our team of 75+ fire protection experts can help with design, build, or maintaining any part of your fire protection system: sprinklers, alarms, and even backflow testing.

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