Dear Angie: What maintenance should be done on an in-home fire sprinkler system? I've been told that a fire protection technician should test the system annually and that failure to do so could cause me to lose insurance coverage if there's a malfunction. — Jim M., Fallbrook, Calif.
Answer: Although California is one of two states that mandates sprinklers in all residential construction, it doesn't require regular sprinkler inspections after installation. That doesn't mean they aren't a good idea, though.
Many insurers offer a premium discount for fire sprinklers, and they can set their own rules about what you must do to maintain the discount. That might be the source of what you've been told, so give your insurance agent a call to learn specifics.
Regular maintenance for residential sprinklers isn't difficult — in most cases, you can do it yourself. The Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition recommends home owners visually verify that all water shutoff valves are open and the storage tank, if present, is full. If you have pipes in the attic and live in an area where freezing is a concern, make sure the pipes are insulated properly.
You'll also want to perform a flow test periodically. Your system should feature a clearly labeled flow-test valve, with discharge to the outside. To test it, open the valve slowly and let the water run to the outside for a minute or so. This will trigger your fire alarm if it's connected to your sprinkler system, so notify your alarm company before you perform the test so they don't call the fire department.
Regularly check your sprinkler heads and cover plates, and make sure they haven't been painted over, which will interfere with their operation. Don't block the heads with stacks of boxes or shelves, either.
You can hire a sprinkler contractor to check things out as well. Be aware that some municipalities and states — including California — require sprinkler installers and inspectors to be licensed. Your local fire marshal should be able to tell you what laws govern your area. An inspection shouldn't cost more than a few hundred dollars.
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