Sprinklers in Air Handlers

Q: Does a roof top air handler require sprinkler heads if it is unoccupied? We have large walk-in style air handlers on the roof of our hospital and they are not protected with automatic sprinklers.

A: Well… section 18.3.5.1 of the 2012 Life Safety Code requires buildings containing health care facilities to be protected throughout with automatic sprinklers. Initially, one could make the case that mechanical equipment sitting outside the building (although on top of the building) is not part of the building and therefore is not included in this requirement. Taking a look at NFPA 13 (2010 edition), I see sprinklers are required in elevator equipment rooms, and sprinklers are required in electrical rooms (with some exceptions). But these rooms are actually inside the building and would be required to be protected with sprinklers according to section 18.3.5.1 of the 2012 LSC.

So it depends: Is the roof-top air handler room considered outside the building, or is it considered part of the building? That’s going to be the deciding factor, and who makes this decision? The authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) does. Even though accreditation organizations like The Joint Commission, HFAP and DNV are AHJs, they typically leave the construction interpretations to the local and state AHJs. So, if your state or local AHJ has made the determination that the air handler on top of the hospital roof does not require sprinklers, that may be enough to convince the accreditation organizations.

Or it may not. You never know if the accreditation organizations will make a different interpretation while a surveyor is onsite. If you do not want to install sprinklers, then I suggest you get it in writing from your state and local AHJs that sprinklers are not required in the air handler, and keep that document on file. If an accreditation surveyor thinks you should have sprinklers, pull that document out and see if that stops them from writing a citation. However, if you start storing combustible items in the air handler (like cardboard boxes of clean filters) then that will likely prompt the surveyor to write a finding.

Clean Air Filters

Clean Air Filters in Mechanical Rooms

Clean air filters that are stored outside of the box, or a plastic bag, will often times be cited by surveyors under an infection control standard. The logic is dust and dirt will accumulate on the surface of the air filter and when inserted into the air handler, the dust and dirt may be blown downstream and into the patient care or staff areas. Therefore, the dusty clean filters presents an infection control problem by potentially re-distributing the dirt into a clean environment.

A simple solution to this problem is to always store your clean filters in the original shipping containers and never leave them out unprotected. If they do get separated from the box they came in, then place them in a clean plastic bag and seal the bag. Obviously, dirty filters should not be left in the mechanical rooms, as they need to be disposed of as soon as they are removed.

Questions that I get asked is it OK to store clean filters, in their original shipping boxes, in the mechanical room where they will eventually be used? Yes, boxes of clean filters may be stored in a mechanical room, provided:

  • The mechanical room itself does not house any fuel-fired equipment, such as gas furnaces, boilers, and gas water heaters
  • The mechanical room is constructed to meet Hazardous Room requirements, such as automatic sprinklers and 1-hour fire rated barriers for new construction, or automatic sprinkler or 1-hour fire rated barriers for existing construction.
  • There is no Joint Commission or CMS requirement to store the filters on pallets or shelves. Just make sure the boxes are not stored in a wet environment.