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Is Your Older Commercial Building A Firetrap? Here's What You Can Do About It

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Setting up your small business in a "vintage" building adds a sense of class, warmth, coziness and sheer history -- but it's not without its hazards. The combination of old organic building materials and the modern demands of a commercial enterprise can easily lead to a frightening or even tragic fire. If you're moving your business into an older home or other historic structure, here are some steps you can take to keep your property and people safe.

Modernize the Electrical System

As you might assume, historic buildings are often fitted with equally ancient amenities, and that goes for the electric system as well. The most common feature of an old electrical system is knob-and-tube wiring. This system routes copper wires through holes in porcelain tubes set into wall joists and other structures. Lengths of wire were supported by porcelain knobs to keep them away from flammable objects such as wooden beams. Knob-and-tubing wiring was a standard feature of building constructed between the 1880s and the 1930s. While it isn't necessarily a fire waiting to happen, the old-style fabric insulation is likely to be frayed, chewed away by vermin or otherwise deteriorated, leaving the copper wires exposed. To make matters worse, these systems don't include ground wiring, which can increase the risk of overload-related fires in this age of sensitive, power-hungry electrical appliances.

Ask your electrician to inspect the wiring system for issues such as dangerous insulation and other signs of wear and tear -- including previous tenants' clumsy attempts to splice extra circuits into the system. Have ground fault circuit interrupters installed so the system will shut itself off in the event of an overload. You can make overloads less likely by augmenting the existing setup with a separate, more modern installation for your heavier electrical demands.

Get Your Fire Sprinklers Up to Speed

If you're moving into a historic building in the commercial district of a large city, your building may already be equipped with automatic fire sprinklers, since these protective systems have been in use in the U.S. since 1874. But that doesn't mean you can take their presence for granted. While more than 200 cities nationwide have laws requiring the installation of fire sprinklers, there's always the chance that you're living in a city that doesn't have such laws on the books -- in which case, the previous owners or managers may never have bothered to install sprinklers. Even if you have fire sprinklers, they may be defective or non-functional if no one has inspected them in years.

Get a commercial plumber or fire safety company like Nor Cal Fire Protection to confirm that your ancient fire sprinklers are still able to protect your team and your building in the event of a fire. If you don't have any fire sprinklers at all -- get some! An old multi-story building can be retrofitted with a fire sprinkler system for $2.50 or less per square foot.

Clear the Way for Evacuation

When you think about how many previous occupants your historic building may have accommodated over the years, it's understandable that certain parts of the building have been transformed over the decades into permanent storage areas. Old furniture, boxes of defunct office machinery and other archeological evidence of businesses past may be stacked up in stairwells, blocking fire escapes or hiding auxiliary exits. These items aren't just an eyesore -- they could also prove a deadly obstacle if your employees have to escape a fire in a hurry.

Go through the entire site and create safe, effective pathways for evacuation in accordance with your facility's emergency escape plan. Clear any obstacles out of the hallways or stairwells and make sure the emergency doors actually work. If your older building still relies on fire escapes instead of modern indoor egress staircases, get them inspected for any signs of dangerous corrosion or other deterioration that might make them unusable.

Enjoy a safer, more functional work environment by taking the appropriate steps to protect your historic facility -- and the people who occupy it -- against fires. The proper preventatives measures can keep your building standing tall for another hundred years!