Oxygen Reduction Fire Prevention Systems: An Alternative to Sprinklers in Industrial Fire Safety

Large warehouses, cold storage facilities and data centers around the world embrace the advanced fire prevention technology that averts property damage and downtime caused by fire.

Unlike fire sprinkler systems first used in 1874 in the U.S., oxygen reduction is a relatively new fire prevention technology started in Europe in the mid 1990s.  The difference is like night and day.  Whereas sprinkler systems are designed to control and suppress a fire before the fire department arrives, oxygen reduction—as its name suggests--prevents the chance of a nascent fire from even igniting by carefully reducing a facility’s level of ambient oxygen—the fire’s fuel—and replacing it with nitrogen.
While over 700 industrial facilities outside of North America currently use WAGNER’s proactive fire prevention technology, the system’s debut in the U.S. was made recently, in 2015, with the installation of OxyReduct® in North America’s largest public refrigerated warehouse owned by Preferred Freezer Services, Inc.  

How Active Fire Prevention Using an Oxygen Reduction System Works

Nitrogen makes up 78% of the air we breathe; Oxygen makes up 21%. The presence of oxygen is a necessary component for fire—without it, combustion simply cannot take place. Oxygen reduction works by reducing the ambient oxygen level in a defined space and carefully replacing it with nitrogen to a point where fire cannot start. In this way OxyReduct® ensures continuous fire protection while keeping the environment safe for authorized personnel. That’s the basic principle.

Oxygen reduction systems, like OxyReduct®, have 3 basic components:

  1. Oxygen sensors: Oxygen levels must be continuously monitored to maintain non-combustible levels. Sensors activate nitrogen pump when oxygen exceeds levels.
  2. Nitrogen generation: Nitrogen is generated by extracting it from ambient air using VPSA technology. It is then stored in tanks and released when required.
  3. Control system: Computer processing system that manages and coordinates individual component processes.

Sprinkler Systems: Fire Suppression But Not Prevention

Sprinkler fire protection systems are the de facto fire safety system in the U.S., widely incorporated into local building codes for hotels, apartments and industrial buildings.  With several different types on the market, their intended purpose centers around either controlling or suppressing a fire.   Sprinklers used in most industrial settings work to reduce the fire’s heat release rate to prevent structural collapse and to control the spread of fire by watering down surrounding areas.  Ultimately, local firefighters are responsible for containment and final extinguishing.  Suppression mode sprinklers, used widely in commercial kitchen settings, are designed to rapidly reduce the fire’s heat, followed by manual extinguishing.  

Suppression but Not Prevention: Disadvantages of Sprinkler Systems

  • Reactive rather than proactive fire prevention system, designed to control and suppress, rather than prevent a fire’s destructive capability
  • Property damage and operational disruptions caused by fire and flooding can still be considerable, not to mention loss of life
  • Damage through system being accidentally triggered and false alarms
  • Activation by heat after destruction is well underway
  • Burst sprinkler water pipes account for large amount of destruction each year
  • Inadequate for high rack storage warehouses whose height can exceed 100 ft
  • Voluminous water tanks and supplies of extinguishing agents require much space

OSHA Regulations Concerning Work Environments That Use Oxygen Reduction Systems

Oxygen reduction systems regulate the oxygen level in a workspace environment to below that of normal atmospheric conditions. This fact has raised concerns with OSHA regulators regarding the health impact such systems may have on people who work day to day in these environments. OSHA’s Respiratory Protection Standard 29 CFR 1910.134 requires employers to provide supplemental respiratory devices for workers whose ambient oxygen level is less than 19.5%.

In contrast, 17% is the acceptable oxygen concentration threshold established by European regulating authorities for not requiring supplemental breathing devices.  Considering that residents of many high-elevation cities live and work without health risks (Denver and Aspen’s oxygen levels are 17.3% and 15.4% respectively), this seems entirely reasonable. Many experts indeed consider hypoxic air to be completely safe to breathe for most people. As demand by industries for implementing oxygen reduction solutions increases in the U.S. and workplace safety concerns are addressed, it is not unlikely to believe that the U.S. threshold will be lowered in the future.
In the meantime, compliance with OSHA guidelines together with OxyReduct®’s stringent monitoring of oxygen levels will ensure the health and safety of workers as oxygen reduction technology gains a foothold in the U.S.