Beware of Cheaters - Brass Cheater Failures in Fire Protection Systems
A fire protection system (FPS) consists of numerous sprinklers connected to a network of water-filled pipes. When these systems fail, the resulting water damage can be very costly.
Water escapes are frequently caused by a component known as a ‘fire sprinkler extension’ or ‘cheater’. A cheater is a short brass coupler that is inserted between the end of the pipe and the sprinkler head. Cheaters are a cheap way to extend the pipe so that the sprinkler head projects the appropriate distance from the ceiling or wall. They are called cheaters because the installer ‘cheats’ by bridging the gap with a ‘cheater’ rather than installing a new section of pipe.
Many cheaters are made of brass (an alloy of copper and zinc) that corrodes from dezincification—a phenomenon where zinc is dissolved out of brass by stagnant water leaving behind a weak metallic sponge of copper. When a weakened cheater eventually breaks, half of the broken cheater and the sprinkler head are propelled off the sprinkler pipe and water pours from the uncapped pipe.
Identifying a cheater failure is straightforward. In the broken cheater below, the red-brown ring on the water-side of the fracture (see arrow) is the telltale sign of a dezincification failure.
A Brass 'cheater' Magnified photo of failed 'cheater'
Unfortunately, identifying the cheater’s manufacturer is less straightforward than identifying a cheater failure. These components almost never have identifying markings on them. Instead, an effective approach is to follow the trail from installer to distributor to manufacturer. If you find the manufacturer, you may be told that the installer over-tightened the sprinkler. To counter this argument, the installation torques of other sprinkler heads in the room where the failure occurred can be measured.
With the cheater dezincification failure confirmed, the manufacturer identified, and the leading counter-argument addressed, there should be a good shot at subrogation without getting soaked…a second time.