by Bill Smith, president of Elite Software

Fueled by a national wave of legislation and building insurance savings, the fire protection industry is undergoing a broad expansion. Some experts predict a continued doubling of annual sales to five billion dollars within five years. With this growth, comes new pressures for optimal, cost effective sprinkler system design.

Hydraulically designed sprinkler systems produce optimal results, but manual hydraulic calculations are exceptionally difficult to perform, especially for large complex systems. With the advent of affordable desktop computers and powerful software for hydraulic calculations, hydraulically designing even the most complicated sprinkler system is now practical. As a result, hydraulic calculation software has emerged as a powerful design tool in designing cost effective and reliable sprinkler systems.

Greg Lindholm, president of Nordic Fire Protection in Owatonna, Minnesota, has designed fire sprinkler systems since 1972. For many years, he felt his ability to expand his business was severely limited without computerized hydraulic calculations for the larger, more complicated projects.

Lindholm has long preferred hydraulically designed sprinkler systems because of their smaller, more efficient pipe layouts and resultant savings to his clients. Even before he owned a computer, Lindholm performed manual hydraulic calculations for virtually every job. Occasionally, he considered using pipe schedules, but nearly every time he tried them he could not be price competitive. Lindholm recalls, "Pipe schedule designed systems were only competitive for jobs up to 15-20 heads." However, manual hydraulic calculations were so difficult and time consuming that he could not afford to do them on large projects. As a result, Lindholm rarely won the larger, more profitable jobs.

Things improved somewhat when Lindholm purchased a programmable hand held calculator in 1977. Although he used the calculator primarily on simple grid systems, Lindholm recalls, "There were times when I would start the calculator on a job in the afternoon, and come back the next morning to find it still calculating. It was slow and monotonous, you could never do a quick job with a programmable calculator."

Besides long compute times, the calculator also had limited capabilities. Lindholm remembers, "I couldn't do any complex grids, or for that matter, simple grids that had more than two cross mains. Certain kinds of loop systems were a problem, and there was no way to calculate for upgrades to an existing system." As a result, there were many jobs Lindholm couldn't bid as he lacked the capability to design them. "We were losing substantial business, there were jobs I couldn't even look at," recalls Lindholm.

Finally in 1987, Lindholm had an opportunity to get three big jobs that absolutely required computerized hydraulic calculations. "I told the client I was getting a computer and a hydraulic calculations program to handle such jobs," Lindholm recalls. Lindholm began his search and obtained literature on several hydraulic calculation programs including the FIRE program from Elite Software of Bryan, Texas. Although all the programs looked very capable, he finally purchased the FIRE program for several reasons. Price and the ability to review a functioning version of the FIRE program before he bought it made the difference. "The others were so much more expensive, that as a small contractor I just couldn't afford them. Also, the other vendors didn't have a working demonstration version of their software so I couldn't evaluate them beyond looking at the literature," remembers Lindholm.

One other reason Lindholm selected the FIRE program was that Elite Software offered low cost hardware as well as software. One year after his initial purchase of FIRE for use on his Commodore 128 computer, Lindholm decided to upgrade his computer to an IBM compatible system. He obtained a new version of FIRE and a Zenith computer system at highly discounted prices direct from Elite Software.

Lindholm remembers his first acquaintance with the FIRE program. "Using FIRE is not difficult. You use it a couple of times and get into a pattern that suits your approach to the work. I looked at the manual for the first couple of jobs, but since then I haven't needed it. The user manual is very good, but I just use it for reference purposes now."

Lindholm enjoyed an immediate return on his investment in hydraulic calculations software. He recalls, "It only took two jobs to pay for the program. The price was so low that when you start saving 4 to 5 hours per job it doesn't take long to pay for the software. The FIRE program calculates much faster than my old calculator, and it's much easier to enter all the data in correctly."

Lindholm states, "Not only are the time savings tremendous, I can now get bigger jobs." Since obtaining the software, Lindholm's biggest job has been a large existing warehouse where the occupancy and hazard condition was changed significantly. The existing sprinkler system had to be modified and required substantial enlarging and strengthening. He explains, "We ended up adding two more mains and increasing the system up to 3,000 sprinkler heads. We could have never gotten a job like this without the ability to perform sophisticated hydraulic calculations. That job really made us glad we had the FIRE program and the computer."

Lindholm finds that a computerized approach to sizing systems has other advantages. He observes, "FIRE gives me the ability to quickly change pipe sizes, pipe materials, or add and delete pipe segments. If I want to add a loop to a system or try something different, I can easily adjust the network. I can try any `what if' changes very quickly."

Passing inspections and design reviews is also now easier for Lindholm. "Our designs often have to be approved by many organizations, including insurance companies and city officials," he notes. But Lindholm has seen that computerized reports are more well received than hand written calculations. He adds, "They figure if it's done by a computer, it's done right. I believe reviewing agencies give us faster and easier approval because of FIRE's computerized reports. They simply are more trusting of computer calculations."

In summarizing his experience, Lindholm states, "I've found that I had to computerize my hydraulic calculations to stay in the game. When I look around, almost all of my competitors are computerized. The fact is, you have to computerize unless you are willing to stay small. If you plan on growing even a little, you need a computer. And if you want to grow to be a good sized firm, you can't do it without computerized hydraulic calculations."

For now, Lindholm has a consistent group of clients who call him to do their work. He explains, "With the ability to do all different kinds of jobs, I have all the work I can handle. My clients who use computers in their own work especially appreciate computerized sprinkler system designs as it goes very well with their own submittals."

Looking to a bright future, Lindholm expects Nordic Fire Protection to continue expanding, and plans to hire two more employees this summer. He also plans to further streamline the sprinkler design process by incorporating computer aided drafting (CAD) with his hydraulic calculations.

Lindholm warns that the future for non-computerized firms looks dim. "Without computers they cannot grow or get any decent work. They'll be forced to stick with little remodeling jobs and other small projects. They will not be able to get the profitable work like large warehouses and shopping centers. The good jobs will simply go to the firms who computerize their hydraulic calculations and design process. When you think about it, hydraulic calculation programs like FIRE have become an essential tool just like all the other tools contractors use daily. It's something we use day in and day out," concludes Lindholm.

Mr. Smith welcomes your email about this article. - email

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