May 13, 2009 By Blake Harris
Photo: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute seniors Erik Kauntz, Jake Pyzza, and Ryan Clapp designed and built an early prototype of a new "smart" fire suppression system.
Between 35 and 40 million fire sprinklers are now installed each year in the United States, more than in any other country in the world, according to Russell Fleming, executive vice president of the National Fire Sprinkler Association.
"The traditional use of fire sprinkler systems in the United States, as in other parts of the world, was for property protection and the resulting insurance savings," says Fleming. "However, it was found that sprinkler systems provided a life safety benefit as well. By the 1940s it began to be apparent that fires with large losses of life were taking place only in buildings without sprinkler protection."
Building codes in most jurisdictions now mandate fire sprinkler systems for certain classifications of buildings. That's the good news. However, such systems are not perfect. Indiscriminate soaking an office building, home, or workplace with water can cause tens of thousands of dollars worth of damage in places where there was no immediate threat from fire.
A group of graduating engineers from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute set their sights on this problem, and have developed a promising solution. Seniors Jake Pyzza, Erik Kauntz, and Ryan Clapp researched, designed, and built an early prototype of a new "smart" fire suppression system that pinpoints the location of a fire in a building and douses the blaze with flame suppressants.
"Our sensors sweep a room, sense where the fire is, and then deliver a suppressant to just that area, while the sensor is still sweeping the rest of the room to see if the fire spread," says Pyzza. "If it continues to scan and doesn't see any more sources of fire, it turns the suppression system off to help minimize any damage to the room's contents."
The group developed and built their invention last year as their final project for a year-long capstone mechanical engineering course.
The new fire detection and suppression system is hardwired with a battery backup so it can function even if the building's electricity is shut off or unavailable. And the team is now investigating methods for directly transmitting the pinpointed location - down to the specific room - of the fire to the local fire department and/or private home security companies. The system's combination of ultraviolet and infrared sensors can locate and track a lit match up to 25 feet away, according to the group.
"It's a robust system, and we basically built it from the ground up," says Kauntz. "Combined, it took us hundreds of hours to design and put together."
The group's original idea was to develop a "firefighting grenade" that fire safety officials could throw into blaze, which gradually evolved into a home fire suppression system. The second idea stuck, particularly because municipalities are increasingly requiring new homes and home additions to have dedicated sprinkler systems.
"We felt there was a resounding need for an update for home sprinkler systems," said Clapp, a Product Design, and Innovation (PDI) major from Cairo, N.Y. "The original home sprinkler system was invented in 1873, by an RPI alumnus, and it hasn't really changed since then. So we felt it was time for an update, and that this was the perfect place to do it."
The students are currently investigating the possibility of licensing the system, securing a richer set of performance data, and potentially starting the formal process of filing a patent.