Foodservice Equipment Reports

Albuquerque Amends Proposed Law Requiring Walk-In Sprinklers

The smoke has cleared in Albuquerque, N.M., and existing foodservice operators can breathe a little easier. They won’t have to add sprinkler systems to their restaurants, including their walk-in coolers and freezers. A proposed ordinance would have required all buildings under its purview to have completed retrofits as of next July, but the city council has amended it to apply only to new construction.

The Sprinkler Compromise Ordinance negotiated by the New Mexico Restaurant Association will exempt existing buildings from the requirement to install fire suppressant sprinklers in public areas. The ordinance was passed June 20.

Controversy arose when the New Mexico city’s fire marshal said the 2005 fire code requires sprinklers “in all spaces.” As reported in The Albuquerque Journal, Fire Marshal Victor Marquez said the city’s fire code requires taverns and bars, nightclubs, banquet halls and restaurants measuring more than 5,000 sq, ft. or with an occupancy of 300 or more to be equipped with sprinkling systems. "All spaces means all spaces, whether it's a storage space or walk-in cooler," he said.

The NMRA said the fight over the ordinance is a prime example of overregulation that costs businesses money. In a letter to the Journal, association CEO Carol Wight wrote that having water in a cooler is nonsensical: "Is there (imminent) danger of fire in a freezer? 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."

Marquez said a fire can start in a freezer or cooler. "The temperature of a room does nothing to a fire. It's the moisture in the air.” According to Marquez, 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.

Coolers and walk-in freezers are not specifically mentioned in the 2003 International Fire Code but are cited in the National Fire Protection Association standards for installing sprinkler systems. It states: "This standard contemplates full sprinkler protection for all areas, including walk-in coolers, freezers, bank vaults and similar areas.”

In her letter, Wight cited an NMRA member who spent $2,000 to install a fire suppressant sprinkler in a walk-in freezer. "The cost may keep the employer from hiring another employee, or he may have to raise prices," she wrote. "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.”

Business owners testified that full retrofits, including coolers and freezers, would cost between $60,000 and $100,000.