NM fire marshal: Sprinklers needed in restaurant freezers

Albuquerque Fire Marshal Victor Marquez said the fire code adopted by the city in 2005 requires the sprinklers "in all spaces"

By Rivkela Brodsky
The Albuquerque Journal

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Those on either side of a city ordinance are like fire and ice when it comes to whether it makes sense to require sprinklers in walk-in coolers of restaurants.

Albuquerque Fire Marshal Victor Marquez said the fire code adopted by the city in 2005 requires taverns and bars, nightclubs, banquet halls and restaurants over 5,000 square feet or with an occupancy of 300 or more to have sprinklers "in all spaces."

"All spaces means all spaces, whether it's a storage space or walk-in cooler," Marquez said.

The ordinance would have required all buildings it covers to have completed retrofit as of next July — with plans due this month — but the City Council has amended it to apply only to new construction.

Carol Wight, CEO of the New Mexico Restaurant Association, says having water in a cooler is nonsensical: "Is there (imminent) danger of fire in a freezer?" she said in a letter to the Journal.

"When water from the sprinkler hits the freezing temperature, doesn't it just freeze? I know it sounds crazy, but this is the kind of bizarre regulation we are requiring of the businesses right here in Albuquerque."

While the Albuquerque Fire Department fire marshal says there is a solid reason behind the ordinance, the New Mexico Restaurant Association says it is overregulation that ends up costing businesses unnecessarily.

Marquez said the city code is based on the 2003 International Fire Code, as well as the codes and standards of the National Fire Protection Association.

Coolers and walk-in freezers are not specifically mentioned in the International Fire Code but are cited in the National Fire Protection Association standards for installing sprinkler systems.

"This standard contemplates full sprinkler protection for all areas, including walk-in coolers, freezers, bank vaults and similar areas," it reads.

Business owners have said the full retrofits, including coolers and freezers, would cost between $60,000 and $100,000.

Wight says a member was recently required to install a fire suppressant sprinkler in a walk-in freezer, at a cost of $2,000. The member was not named in the letter.

"The cost may keep the employer from hiring another employee, or he may have to raise prices," she said. "The unintended consequences may be that the owner finally gets fed up and decides that it is not worth it to do business in Albuquerque."

Marquez said a fire can start in a freezer or cooler.

"Contrary to what people believe, a fire can start in the winter if it is dry enough," he said. "The temperature of a room does nothing to a fire. It's the moisture in the air." Freezers, he said, have dry cold air.

Special dry pipe sprinkler heads used in freezers or coolers should prevent the system from activating accidently and causing damage, Marquez said. There has to be enough heat in the cooler or freezer to melt the fuse that allows water to run through the sprinklers, he said.

Frontier upgrade
Larry Rainosek, co-owner of Frontier Restaurant and Golden Pride, said he installed sprinklers in two walk-in coolers and a walkin freezer when the Golden Pride location at 10101 Central Ave. NE was built.

The sprinklers were required at the time for new construction. He said it cost $50,000 to give the entire building sprinklers — including the coolers. The location opened in 2003.

Rainosek recently spent about $90,000 to install automatic sprinklers at Frontier Restaurant to meet the fire code requirement for all new or existing bars or restaurants over 5,000 square feet — an ordinance that was successfully fought by the New Mexico Restaurant Association.

"Even though Frontier installed it, we have no hard feelings about it," he said.

The Frontier building at 2400 Central SE does not have freezers in it. Those are in another building near Frontier that is less than 5,000 square feet, so it was not required, he said.

Rainosek said he appreciated the decision by the council, because the sprinkler requirement threatened businesses financially.

"When we get these ordinances that are so extensive, it makes older buildings harder to retrofit. ...When you have that kind of cost, it makes it not financially feasible to occupy the building," he said.

Copyright 2011 Albuquerque Journal

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