City of Steamboat Springs working to ban antifreeze sprinkler systems due to safety concerns

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— A deadly kitchen fire in California five years ago is leading to a significant change to the sprinkler code here in Steamboat Springs.

As a response to recent revelations nationwide that some sprinkler systems that use too much antifreeze can actually intensify fires before putting them out, the city of Steamboat Springs is working to pass an ordinance that would keep any more of those systems from being installed here.

Fire Marshal Jay Muhme said the National Fire Protection Association's recent testing on the sprinkler systems has shown that in some rare cases, the antifreeze can pose a significant safety issue.

The testing started in 2009 when a woman in Truckee, Calif., was killed after an antifreeze sprinkler system reportedly intensified a fire on a stove and caused an explosion.

“It's hard to believe after this many years, they're just coming out and figuring this out,” Muhme said Monday.

There haven't been any incidents with the systems that are used here in Steamboat, Muhme said, but officials want to be proactive and adopt an ordinance that prohibits antifreeze systems from being installed in new buildings and homes.

The city will work to notify property owners who have these systems about the deficiencies and recommend their replacement. They also should get notice during their annual inspections.

Muhme said the change ultimately could force some contractors here to be more creative in designing fire suppression systems for commercial buildings and some homes.

Steamboat Fire Chief Mel Stewart said last week that the antifreeze-based sprinkler systems represent a small number of the 300 to 350 sprinkler systems in the city and the local fire district, but the city hasn't had a reason to count the antifreeze systems until now.

“The common stance was if you came into a community like ours where we have low temperatures, you could put antifreeze in there to try and cover your bases,” Muhme said. “Most of these systems can be designed to run wet (without antifreeze), you just have to do a lot more engineering to make sure they run on interior walls.”

Usually a cheaper alternative than dry systems that use air to fight fire, the antifreeze systems are more commonly found in homes that have vaulted ceilings, in attics and on parts of commercial property that aren't heated.

These systems still use water, but the initial spraying of liquid that contains the glycol and glycerin that make up the antifreeze solution can add fuel to the fire, according to the recent testing.

The National Fire Protection Association's new recommendation for how much antifreeze is acceptable would not be sufficient to keep systems from freezing in the winter here in Steamboat, city officials said.

The Steamboat Springs City Council last week passed a first reading of the sprinkler ordinance but delayed a second reading until May to give the building community and other residents more time to learn about the potential change.

Council member Tony Connell asked how much more it would cost to create an alternative system.

Officials said it was hard to calculate, but dry systems typically are more expensive, and it can take more work to engineer wet systems that don't use antifreeze.

“This is a huge issue, without a doubt,” Muhme said. “The hard part for me is telling people these systems are not good, but we don't have another option for you with an antifreeze solution. But we feel the life endangerment was worth notifying people right now.”

To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210, email scottfranz@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottFranz10

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