You'd assume that the only way a fire sprinkler could go wrong is if it doesn't trigger at all. Otherwise, what could be simpler -- it detects smoke or fire, then shoots out water to douse the flames. So, you can imagine the surprise people feel when they see the sprinklers kick on and act like goddamned ceiling-mounted flamethrowers.
The problem is that, in order to keep pipes from freezing up in the winter, some sprinklers mix glycerin antifreeze with the water. That chemical happens to be flammable. Now, it's not a problem when mixed properly, but it's not hard for the flammable stuff to build up in the pipes if it's done incorrectly. This means highly flammable liquid raining down on already pissed-off flames, and everyone in the vicinity realizing that "fight fire with fire" is actually a terrible safety policy.
We're beginning to detect a pattern here.
And in fact, the chemical downpour doesn't even need an open flame to ignite. In 2001, an overhead heater at Windansea restaurant in Highlands, New Jersey, grew hot enough to trigger the restaurant's sprinkler. The glycerin sprayed all over the heater like Satan's drunken piss and quickly ignited a blaze, the highlight of which (if you can call it that) was a gigantic fireball melting the walls and shooting through the eating part of the restaurant. While nobody died, 19 people were injured.
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Food artist's rendering.
Then in 2010, it happened again, only this time with actual fire to fuel the flames. Allix Thrall's 3-year-old son, Luke, was playing with matches -- despite having the hand-eye coordination of, well, a toddler, Luke managed to strike a flame and set a small fire. This activated the glycerin-loaded sprinklers, which quickly turned the fire into a gigantic inferno that sent both Luke and Allix to the hospital with second- and third-degree burns. In a 2009 incident, sprinklers actually triggered an explosion powerful enough to blow debris 90 feet away, killing one victim and injuring another.
Finally, in 2010, the National Fire Protection Association banned antifreeze in all new sprinkler systems. Sounds great, except it does nothing for the millions of old, chemical-filled sprinklers still hanging around and waiting to explode like a solar flare. Also, this does nothing for new sprinklers, since the NFPA doesn't actually have power to regulate anything. So either the owners of those systems have to take it upon themselves to get them fixed, or they just pray they never have a fire. If you are one of these people, all we can say is don't let them perform any asshole surgeries there.
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"The world just wasn't ready for your auto body repair/proctology clinic, Steve."
Kevin Phelan is an entertainment reporter in New York's Lower Hudson Valley. If enough people follow him on Twitter, he might actually start using the goddamn thing. You can book his face right here.
For more ways the system fails you, check out The 5 Most Popular Safety Laws (That Don't Work). And then check out 22 Insane Laws You Won't Believe Exist in the Modern World.