Gaps in Ceilings

Q: I am looking for the 1/8-inch gap reference for ceiling tiles. If the ceiling has broken tiles, or misaligned tiles, or gaps greater than 1/8-inch caused by anything (such as data cables temporarily run up through the ceiling), then I see that the surveyors will cite this. Is that actually written in the NFPA codes and standards anywhere? Is the 1/8-inch gap rule “real”? Does it use the 1/8-inch measurement anywhere? If so, where? If not, where does it come from?

A: No, there is no direct statement in the LSC that says gaps greater than 1/8-inch are prohibited, but ceilings containing smoke detectors and sprinklers must form a continuous membrane and any sizable gap in this membrane would allow smoke and heat to rise above the ceiling which would delay the activation of the detector or sprinkler, thereby causing an impairment.

Since the size of the gap must be quantifiable, and NFPA does not say how big the gap has to be before it is a problem, authorities having jurisdiction have ‘borrowed’ the 1/8-inch gap concept from NFPA 80 regarding the gap between a fire door and the frame. Authorities having jurisdiction are permitted to do this as section of the 2012 Life Safety Code says the authority shall determine whether the provisions of the LSC are met. This means, when the Life Safety Code is not clear on a subject, the authorities have to make interpretations in order to determine compliance.

Strange Observations – Ceiling Gaps

Continuing in a series of strange things that I have seen while consulting at hospitals…

Ceilings that contain smoke detectors and/or sprinkler heads have to resist the passage of smoke.

For ceilings that are constructed with acoustical tile and grid assembly, this can be challenging in electrical rooms, or IT rooms where there are a lot of penetrations.

Gaps between the ceiling tile and the conduit cannot exceed 1/8-inch.

Missing Ceiling Tiles

Q: Do missing ceiling tiles in a suspended ceiling create a Life Safety Code deficiency in an existing business occupancy? Should section of the 2012 Life Safety Code apply to require the maintenance of broken or missing ceiling tiles in a business occupancy?

A: The complete membrane that the ceiling forms is required if sprinklers or smoke (or heat) detectors are installed in the room or area served by the ceiling. The ceiling acts to trap the heat and smoke and allows the sprinklers or detectors to operate. Otherwise, if a ceiling tile is missing, or has excessive gaps around penetrations, or the ceiling tiles have holes, then heat and smoke can continue up into the interstitial space above and the operation of the sprinklers and/or detectors would be delayed, thus causing an impairment.

If there are no sprinklers or smoke (or heat) detectors in the room or area, then there may not be any Life Safety Code reason for the ceiling system, unless it serves as part of the fire-rated floor/ceiling system, such as UL-G227 or UL-G235. Section would not apply if the ceiling is not serving a purpose of life safety. Now, the suspended grid and tile ceiling may serve an Infection Control purpose, and you would have to maintain it for that reason, but that is not a Life Safety Code purpose.

Yes… this would apply to business occupancies. It is not dependent on any particular occupancy.

Strange Observations – Part 19

Continuing in a series of strange things that I have seen when consulting at hospitals…

Ceilings that have smoke or heat detectors mounted on them, and ceilings that have sprinkler heads have to provide a monolith barrier that resists the passage of smoke and heat. When ever there are gaps in the ceiling, or cracks wider than 1/8-inch, then that allows heat and smoke to travel to the space above, which impairs the function of the detectors or sprinkler heads.

This picture provides a two-fer: 1) The sprinkler head is missing its escutcheon cover plate, and; 2) This is apparently taken in an IT room. All of the blue data cable is creating a difficult opening to seal properly.

I’m an advocate to remove the ceilings in IT rooms so there are no ceiling tiles to have to seal. Just remount the lights to be suspended from the deck and turn up the sprinklers to within 12 inches of the deck (and use upright sprinkler heads).

Missing Ceiling Tiles

Missing Ceiling Tiles Web 3Most healthcare organizations have acoustical tile and grid suspended ceilings in a large part of their facilities. They are relatively inexpensive, and allow access to the many mechanical systems that are located above the ceiling. So, why is their such a fuss about a missing ceiling tile, or gaps in the ceiling?

The reason why is the ceiling is an integral part of the smoke detection system and the sprinkler system. When a fire occurs, the smoke and heat rises until it meets the ceiling, then the smoke and heat travels horizontally until it encounters a smoke detector or a sprinkler head. If there is a missing ceiling tile, then the smoke and heat will rise up through the hole where the tile was located and fill up the space above the ceiling before it attempts to activate a detector or sprinkler. This impairs the ability of the smoke detector and the sprinkler head to function and surveyors will likely cite the organization.

Likewise, if the ceiling has broken tiles, or misaligned tiles, or gaps greater than 1/8 inch caused by anything (such as data cables temporarily run up through the ceiling), this too is a problem that surveyors will likely identify.

 However, a missing ceiling tile or a cracked tile with gaps greater than 1/8 inch are not Life Safety Code violations if the room or area does not contain sprinklers or smoke (or heat) detectors. Technically speaking, there is no impairment with a missing ceiling tile if there are no sprinkler heads or smoke detectors present. Now, there may be an Infection Control issue since the space above the ceiling is typically very dirty, but to be sure, it is not a violation of the NFPA codes and standards.

Ceiling tiles often become stained or damaged from water leaks, and maintenance staff typically remove the tiles before they fall to the floor. It is imperative that a ceiling tile is replaced as soon as the leak is repaired, even if you don’t have the correct ceiling tile in stock. Use any tile to prevent an impairment to sprinklers and smoke detectors.

Make sure you access your facility for any missing ceiling tiles or cracked tiles with gaps larger than 1/8 inch.

Sprinkler Heads and Ceiling Mounted Obstructions

Q: I have a reception area that has a sprinkler head in the middle of a 2’x2′ ceiling tile and less than twelve inches from this sprinkler head the interior designer has placed a circle light that is flush to the ceiling tile. Doesn’t this violate the 18″ rule and the 24″ circumference rule?

A: No, what you described does not appear to be a problem. The 18 inch rule that you refer to is measured down (or vertically) from the sprinkler head deflector to a horizontal plane that extends from wall-to-wall in the space or room. If the light fixture that you described is truly flush mounted, and does not extend below the sprinkler head deflector, then I do not see a problem. I am not familiar with the 24 inch circumference rule that you are referring to. You do have the correct idea concerning ceiling mounted obstructions, though. The 2000 Life Safety Code refers to NFPA 13 (1999 edition) for compliance involving sprinkler installations, and Table 5- provides the minimum distances that a ceiling mounted obstruction is permitted to a sprinkler head, depending on the distance the obstruction projects below the sprinkler head. So, in your example, the Table does not permit any object that is ceiling mounted to project below the sprinkler head within the first 12 inches of the sprinkler head. Then for each additional 6 inches, the allowable distance that a ceiling mounted obstruction may extend below the sprinkler head increases. So, you have the right idea concerning ceiling mounted obstructions, you just didn’t have all the details.

Missing Ceiling Tiles

Want to know a secrete?

It’s a pretty sure bet that a hospital does not perform a very good job on Hazard Surveillance Rounds when missing ceiling tiles are discovered by surveyors. This is a slam-dunk issue and an easy one to prevent.

First, we need to fully understand why a missing ceiling tile is a problem. According to section in the 2000 edition of the Life Safety Code, in smoke compartments that are fully protected with automatic sprinklers, a corridor wall is permitted to be non-rated and extend from the floor to the ceiling, provided the ceiling resists the passage of smoke. According to NFPA, an acoustical tile and grid suspended ceiling does qualify as resisting the passage of smoke. Unfortunately, the IBC does not have such a liberal definition, and they require a ‘monolithic’ ceiling, which is usually defined as a lath and plaster or gypsum board.

In rooms that are not open to corridors, the ceiling still has to resist the passage of smoke for the benefit of the sprinkler heads and smoke detectors, if present. Heat and smoke will rise to the ceiling, and then travel across the ceiling until detected by the sprinkler or smoke detector (same logic applies to heat detectors). If the ceiling does not ‘resist the passage of smoke’ because there is a missing or breach in the ceiling tile, then the heat and smoke will travel above the suspended ceiling and activation of the sprinklers and smoke detectors will be delayed, or may not happen at all.

But the problem is basic education. We all know that hospitals will eventually leak water, and ceiling tiles are always the casualty of water leaks. Leaky roofs, busted pipes and over-flow toilets will happen to old and new buildings, and the water will eventually drip onto a ceiling tile. A typical scenario will have a maintenance individual remove the wet tile and discard it, and take the appropriate action to resolve the leak. All too often, a replacment ceiling tile is not inserted due to various reasons such as forgetfulness or a need to dry-out the space above the ceiling.

But the ceiling serves an important function of life safety, and according to section, alternative life safety measures must be implemented during repairs of required fire protection features. Like it or not, the ceiling tile is part of the fire protection feature, and when tiles are missing, alternative life safety measures need to be implemented. (Some AHJs call them Interim Life Safety Measures.)

The simple thing to do is just replace the missing ceiling tile with another, even if it isn’t the correct one, in order to continue the important fire protection feature of a ceiling that resists the passage of smoke. This requires education of the individuals performing the ruotine hazardous surveillance rounds, and teaching them to check for misisng, broken or partially raised ceiling tiles. And don’t forget the maintenance individuals, so they fully understand the importance of the ceiling tiles. It wouldn’t hurt to educate the contractors who work in your facility, as well. They can unknowingly do as much, if not more, damage than anyone else and they aren’t usually supervised all the time.