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Lab Safety


Guyot and Moffett Health, Safety and Accessibility Improvement Project

The purpose of this project is to upgrade and/or install the sprinkler systems, improve the fire alarm system, improve emergency and egress lighting and other tasks in order to bring both buildings up to the current fire and accessibility codes.

Current Status

Monday, 11/13/06, the upgrade of the Fire Alarm and Sprinkler System throughout Guyot Hall will start on the fourth floor level with removal of ceiling tiles and grid work if necessary.

For daily updates on where the contractors will be working, see the blackboards in the fourth floor hallways.

Frequently Asked Questions

How will we know when the contractors are coming to our work area?
At least one week before the anticipated start date for each work area, Bill Huston will post updates on the blackboards in the hallways. If you have questions about a specific area, contact your departmental representative.

This web page will also contain information about the current and projected status of the project.

What should be done to prepare for the contractors?
Where possible, temporarily remove breakable or sensitive materials from the work area before the contractors begin work.

Walk through the labs and work areas to identify any equipment that requires protection (e.g., sensitive to vibration, dust, etc.). Mark this equipment so that the contractors are aware of it. Environmental Health and Safety and departmental representatives walked through the labs months before the work began to try to anticipate these materials and determine what protective measures are needed.

Ensure that chemical containers are not on the floor, particularly glass bottles. Five-gallon poly carboys can remain on the floor, but may need to be moved out of the way of the contractor’s work.

Dispose of hazardous wastes promptly each month. If needed, make arrangements with Mary Zikos or Michael Fredericks to move chemical wastes into the waste storage area just before the installation begins.

If there are specific concerns about chemicals or equipment that will remain in the lab throughout the project, please contact Robin Izzo at 8-6259.

Will the work be noisy?
The noisiest activity during the installation will be drilling. The contractors have agreed to limit drilling to 6:30 AM to 10:00 AM.

Will the contractors use hazardous or odorous materials?
After the piping is installed, contractors will paint it first with a primer, then with paint. The primer is petroleum-based and may emit odors, but is not expected to pose a health hazard. The paint is water-based and non-hazardous, but, like all paints, will emit an odor.

Copies of the material safety data sheets for the paint and primer are available through Environmental Health and Safety. Please contact Robin Izzo at 258-6259if you have questions.

Why are we installing a sprinkler system?
Current building codes and modern laboratory design call for sprinkler systems in most buildings. Fires in laboratories, particularly those using flammable liquids, can result in severe damage to the facility, loss of equipment and research and may pose additional risks to emergency responders depending on the contents of the lab. In several recent serious fires in college and university research labs, investigators concluded that sprinklers would have limited the spread of the fire and the severity of the damage.

In Princeton’s experience, most damage and spread of the fire is related to combustible materials in the lab. For example, in 2001, there was an electrical fire in a lab in Moffett. The fire spread throughout most of the lab due to combustible materials, including manuals, papers, the plastic light fixtures on the fluorescent lighting, tubing and a limited amount of flammable solvent. The fire burned at least 30 minutes before fire fighters arrived. The lab equipment was a total loss due to heavy smoke damage, totaling close to $2 million. Fortunately, a vacant lab was available and good contingency planning allowed the staff to have a new lab running within a week, but it took several years to rebuild the original laboratory. Had a sprinkler system been present, the fire would likely have been extinguished more quickly and the damage may have been minimized.

What sets off the sprinkler? Will all of the sprinkler heads in the room go off at once?
Each sprinkler head contains a mechanism that is sensitive to heat. When the temperature reaches 165 degrees F (68 degrees C), the sprinkler head releases a plug and allows water to flow. The sprinklers are not activated by smoke or by the alarm system. Each sprinkler head is individually and directly activated by the heat of the fire. Thus, small fires are not likely to activate the sprinkler and moderately sized fires will likely only activate one or two heads. Indeed, more than 95% of fires are extinguished by one or two sprinkler heads.

Should we be concerned about sprinkler system failures or leaks?
Statistics show that the sprinkler head failure rate is 1 in 16 million. Even if a leak does occur, once the system detects water flow, it immediately sets off an alarm to Public Safety.

What about water-sensitive chemicals?
While some labs do use water-sensitive chemicals, these materials are used and stored in small quantities. In the event that the water from the sprinkler system reacts with the materials, ensuing fires would be quenched once the reaction stopped. Damage is likely to be less severe than if a fire was not tended to and was allowed to reach other flammable or combustible materials in the lab. Remember that the original fire would have to be significant in order to activate even one sprinkler head.

Won’t computers and some equipment be ruined by the water?
Most labs and some offices contain equipment that can be harmed by water from the sprinklers. This equipment is just as likely to have been harmed by the fire. Without the sprinkler system, a fire that is large enough to activate the sprinkler system would result in response by the fire department. The sprinkler heads are designed to release 10-15 gallons of water per minute, while a firefighter’s hose delivers 250-500 gallons per minute.

Several years ago, a polypropylene hood containing solvents caught fire in the J-wing of E-Quad, which is equipped with a sprinkler system. One sprinkler head was activated and prevented spread of the fire. As a result, the very sensitive and expensive electronic equipment in the lab was unharmed.

What about lasers?
Lasers can be harmed by smoke or fire just as easily as water. In our experience with a fire in a laser lab at Princeton, most of the damage was caused by the smoke harming the optics. In addition, in most cases, the floors above laser lab spaces are sealed to protect from water leaks from sprinklers or safety showers.

Wouldn’t a dry chemical or other non-water suppression system be better?
Dry chemical systems can seriously damage electronic and other laboratory equipment and are impractical in a building-wide system. Alternative agents are impractical because of the amount of space required for the cylinders and are most effective in rooms or areas that are sealed, which is not how laboratories are designed. These systems are most practical for an individual application, such as a piece of equipment or a “sealed” room.

How long will it take to install the system in the room?
The work may take several days, depending on obstructions, size, etc. For particulars about your area, ask your department representative. The plans are to route the sprinkler piping in a way that minimizes disruption. The work generally involves hanging and assembling piping from the ceilings using ladders. The contractors will try to work around the research and work areas to minimize disruption.

Will the contractors move or touch the chemicals and equipment in the lab?
The contractors have been instructed not to disturb chemicals or equipment in the lab. They are counting on laboratory workers to move things out of their way, as needed. Please cooperate with the contractors to ensure that everything runs smoothly. On occasion, the contractors will cover equipment to protect from dust. They will do their best to keep the space clean.

What is involved with hydrostatic testing? Can my area become flooded?

After each phase of the sprinkler system is installed, it must pass certain tests to be approved by the Borough inspectors. First, the contractors perform a test using air at a pressure of 60 pounds over 24 hours. Once the system passes that test, the contractor conducts a hydrostatic test using water at a pressure of 200 pounds for less than an hour. Finally, the hydrostatic test is repeated by the Borough inspectors.

About 95% of the time, no leaks are found during the hydrostatic test. When leaks do exist, they are usually minor drips from a fitting or a loose sprinkler head. Major leaks are extremely rare.

What should be done to prepare for hydrostatic testing?

Upon request, the contractor will cover water-sensitive equipment with plastic before and during the test. No work with water-reactive chemicals outside of a glove box should be performed during the testing. The contractor will also supply plastic sheeting to lab workers so that they may monitor the situation and cover equipment as needed.

How loud should the fire alarm be?

In order to comply with the fire code, the audible alarm must be at least 75 decibels (dB) and at least 15 dB louder than the background noise. As the decibel level is increased by 10 dB, it sounds to the ear as if it has been doubled. For comparison, normal conversation is about 65 dB, a vacuum cleaner is about 70 dB and a lawn mower is about 85 dB.

Who should be called if there are questions or problems?
Contact your department representative for this project:

EEB: Richard Smith, 258-3867, 106 Guyot

Geosciences: Bob Koenigsmark, 258-4123, 407 Guyot

Molecular Biology: Bill Huston, 258-6205. SB1 Guyot

For advice or questions regarding safety issues, please contact Robin Izzo of Environmental Health and Safety at 8-6259 or



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