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National Electrical Code Articles and Information

Based on the 2020 NEC

by Mark Lamendola

National Electrical Code Tips: Article 695, Fire Pumps

Sure, you install motor overload protection to prevent motors from burning up. Under overload conditions, they open the circuit and thus protect the motor. But unlike other motor loads, you want the fire pump to run no matter what. Even if that means overheating the conductors or running the motor at locked-rotor current. Saving the fire pump but losing the facility isn't much of a bargain.

Article 695 is geared toward protecting the facility, and that means keeping power available to the motor under conditions that would normally require interrupting the supply power.

This is a departure from the normal thinking in the NEC. It's critical to understand this fact, or you'll set yourself up for misunderstanding and misapplying Article 695.

Normally, you want to shut down equipment to prevent damage to the supply conductors and/or the equipment itself. But not when that equipment is a fire pump.

Keep in mind that this pump is what supplies water to the fire suppression system. Obviously, you want your sprinkler system to have water when there's a fire. And, of course, your fire brigades and/or the fire department are counting on those fire hoses to be more than mere wall decorations.

So far, so good. If you understand what we've just covered, then many Article 695 requirements make perfect sense. For example, you don't want to install the fire pump inside the paper goods warehouse where it could easily be destroyed by the very fire you're trying to put out. Minimizing, or even eliminating, its exposure to fire is a principle that needs no explanation.

The same thing goes for the requirement that it have a reliable source of power. A little less obvious is the requirement that its wiring be independent of other wiring, but when you think about it this also seems like a "no brainer" idea.

Then, there's the other stuff. Things that just look wrong. Even, sometimes, after you think about them a little bit. But when you go back to why that fire pump exists at all, they also make sense. For example, you can tour many a fire pump room and see a padlock on the disconnect. Usually, it's a "breakaway" type that, if you apply sufficient force, can readily be removed. It's there to make the point that you should not operate that disconnect handle. And, what's counterintuitive at first glance, is that disconnect is locked in the closed position. "I can understand making a disconnect lockable in the open position. Great idea for maintenance. But lockable in the closed position?"

Yep. You don't want that fire pump disconnect left open, only to figure out when the building's half burned down and several people are dead that, oops, someone opened the disconnect. The same rationale behind this lock is why you can't have an automatic means of protecting the pump against overloads.

Another thing about fire pumps. Run oversized conductors to minimize voltage drop and do what you have to do to acheive zero voltage imbalance. Voltage imbalance causes counter-EMF, which means the motor runs hotter. An example of preventing this is to put single-phase loads (e.g., pump room lights and heaters) on their own transformer instead of running some of the motor supply to a panel.

Let's address some highlights of the Article 695 requirements:

  1. Notice how much space Article 695 devotes to "Power Sources for Electric Motor-Driven Fire Pumps" [695.3]. It amounts to a full page. You can have individual sources or multiple sources. You can generate the power onsite. This subsection has many different requirements to cover many different ways of supplying power. It's something you should read very closely before thinking about where to site your pump and before you begin the specification process. It was heavily revised with the 2020 Code.
  2. You cannot use phase converters for the fire pump service [695.3(I)].

  3. Note that what's not mentioned in 695.3 (or anywhere else in Article 695) is the use of a soft-start. Adding one is a very good idea for a lot of reasons, one of which is if it's properly set up it will enhance the "fire pump must run" goal. But since it's not discussed in the NEC you can't just add it. That would be sneaking something in. Well, it is discussed if you can consider it a fire pump transfer switch [695.4(A)] and get the AHJ to go along with its being used for that. Or, perhaps you can find a properly sized soft-start that is listed for this use; contact your electrical distributor to begin that hunt.
  4. So can you put a soft-start in if it's not listed? Whether it's listed or not, you need to discuss the design with the AHJ. You'll need to show a few things about this design. For example, you're including a manual bypass in case the soft-start should ever fail to start. Not that there's any serious danger of this, but things do happen. And the soft-start itself should meet the same conditions as those provided in 695.3, 695.4, 695.12, and 695.14. You don't want it to be the weak link in the system. In fact, you don't want any weak links in this system; that's a key difference between it and all other electrical systems (overload protection is a built-in weak link that you can, presumably, quickly restore by replacing a motor overload strip or similar action).

    But don't forget that you must have a soft-start that provides enough oomph to account for the fact that the fire pump is starting as a dead head load. Unless yours is a fire pump design that doesn't. The major manufacturers provide outstanding support on this aspect, so use that support to come up with a specification that  work best for the application. You aren't going to get a truly optimal soft-start, you are going to just blunt the inrush problem so it's not as severe.

    The goal is to take advantage of the soft-start's ability to reduce stress on the power distribution system, the fire pump, the fire pump conductors, the water piping, etc. without impairing the delivery of the water. A slight delay is OK, because there's already water in the system and the jockey pump will maintain pressure for a short while even under high demand. Think of that jockey pump as the battery backup to the emergency generator; it will hold the load long enough for the generator to come up to speed. The fire pump can work in an analogous fashion with the jockey pump instead of being slammed to 100%.

    Make the design as robust as practical. It would also be good to think through the signage and breakaway locks you're going to include in the design so there's no chance of inadvertent shut-off.
  5. The goal of not interrupting power to the fire pump is addressed repeatedly throughout Article 695. We see continuity of power stressed; it's the title of 695.4. Then we read in 695.4(B)(2) that the overcurrent protective device (not overload protection, these are two different things) must be rated to carry the sum of all the fire pump loads including the locked-rotor current (not starting current or running current) of the largest motor on the circuit. And it must do that not with a time-delay function, but indefinitely. This means a much larger breaker or fuse (and conductors) than what you'd use if merely following Article 430 for a similar sized motor circuit.
  6. It gets dicey with disconnects, too [695.4(B)(2)]. They have to meet a slew of requirements. All of these are aimed at preventing an unintended interruption of power to that fire pump.
  7. If your fire pump operates at a voltage different from that of your service, you'll need a supply transformer for that fire pump. Even if the two match, there are utility transformers in the power grid distribution system so don't let this intimidate you. That brings to mind another issue, which is if you're going to connect a fire pump you should discuss this with the utility first so they can make any needed adjustments to the supply. That's not an NEC requirement, but it's good engineering. If you need a supply transformer, it's good engineering to oversize it and take an efficiency hit than to have it be very efficient and blow up on that hot August day when there just happens to be a fire at your facility. See 695.5 for the minimum sizing requirements.
  8. The service conductors supplying a fire pump must be routed outside a building [695.6(A)(1)]. Think about the logic behind this requirement; it doesn't make sense to route them through a burning building. And what if you have an alternate supply? For example, two utility lines or a utility line and an on-site generator? Well, be thinking worst case scenario and spend the extra money to keep those as far apart from each other as practical. For example, you have a supply on the east end of the facility and the alternate supply coming in from the west end. If some maniac drives a truck of explosives into that east end supply and takes it out, your alternate supply is still available.
  9. Voltage drop is an issue with fire pumps, because they place such a huge load on any distribution system. The NEC has specs and requirements in 695.7, but the typical installation at any large manufacturing facility violates these and nobody knows it.

    You simply cannot start such a large motor across the line driving a dead head pump and stay under a 15% drop. Sure, if you measure with a DMM you can probably show that you meet this spec. But put a power analyzer on the distribution system almost anywhere on site and you will see a huge drop. Almost to zero. It may last only a few milliseconds, but it'll be there. And you'll also see the echo of this as the system bounces back and forth seeking stasis. This is where a soft-start comes in very handy.
  10. You can use EMT for fire pump control wiring [695.14(F)], but generally IMC is a better choice because it provides more protection than EMT and is lighter than RMC. Generally speaking, it's better to use a more rigorous type of raceway than a less rigorous one for this application.

    And though you can use some of the Chapter 3 flexible conduits remember that they have maximum length rules and the relevant Chapter 3 Articles apply. Use them where they are advantageous for such things as accommodating vibration. Don't use them on the basis of "ease of installation." That's almost never a justification for a flexible conduit, and we are talking about a fire pump here. Make it rigorous.