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Recommendation for sprinkler installation disregarded by Utilities ahead of Drake fire

July 6, 2014 Updated: July 7, 2014 at 7:20 am
Caption +
Dan Higgins, Interim Manager of the Colorado Springs Utility Energy Supply Dept., shines a flashlight on the oil pressure and sensing equipment located beneath Unit #5 while leading the most recent media tour of the Martin Drake Power Plant on Tuesday, June 10, 2014. The melted equipment was the point of origin for the fire that shut down the power plant. (The Gazette/Jerilee Bennett)

In what reads like an eerie prediction, the company that insures Colorado Springs Utilities' Drake power plant recommended in February the installation of a sprinkler system beneath the turbine generators in the case that lubricating oil would come into contact with hot steam pipes.

On May 5, a fire began for exactly that reason.

That AIG Energy and Engineered Risk survey report was written Feb. 14, less than three months before lubricating oil squirted out and hit hot steam pipes that ignited a fire inside Martin Drake Power Plant and shut it down.

The AIG report said: "The areas beneath the turbine generator deck of Units Nos. 5, 6, and 7 do not have automatic sprinkler protection as recommend by the (National Fire Protection Association) 850, Electric Generating Stations and HVDC Converter stations. There is currently no containment curbing for the lube oil or seal oil areas provided below the turbine generator decks . sprinklers should be installed beneath the pedestal and a minimum of 20 feet beyond the perimeter pedestal and lube oil hazards."

AIG, the company that holds Colorado Springs Utilities' $500 million insurance policy, has recommended an expansion of a sprinkler system inside the downtown power plant since 1992. Utilities has always taken the recommendation under advisement, said George Luke, Utilities general manager of energy supply.

But the cost of installing the system was greater than the risk, he said.

Drake plant manager Terry Meikle has, over the years, investigated the cost of expanding the sprinkler system. Luke said he never saw a cost estimate. Steve Berry, a spokesman for Utilities, said it could be as much as $2.5 million per turbine unit.

"The evaluation comes down to the trade-off between cost and risk, and decisions have been made in the past that it did not warrant the expense," Luke said.

"Do you have sprinkler system in the house? Why not? If you ask your insurance company, what will they tell you? There are a lot more house fires than power plant fires," Luke said.

An AIG spokesman could not be reached for comment.

Berry said the insurance company makes suggestions to reduce their potential for loss.

"They are an insurance company; they are not experts," he said. "While they may be familiar with the utilities industry, they are not necessarily power plant experts."

AIG never demanded that the sprinkler system be expanded. The company has made no mention of the lack of sprinkler system after the fire, Luke said. The company has paid $5 million on the claim, Luke said.

"It is something they would like us to do - they would like the industry to do," Luke said.

Drake power plant's three turbine generators, known as units No. 5, No. 6 and No. 7, were built in 1962, 1967 and 1974. When the Colorado Springs fire marshal inspects the plant, he applies the city building codes that were in place for the years of construction, deputy fire marshal Kris Cooper said.

If Drake were built today, it would be required to have a sprinkler system, Cooper said.

"However, since it was built many years ago, we can't turn around and say, you know what you have to install sprinkler system because code now requires it - even in this kind of thing," Cooper said.

The fire marshal typically does not recommend the installation of fire suppression equipment, Cooper said, especially when it is not required in the city code.

In 1991, however, the fire marshal initiated a change in the city's code for retirement and nursing homes after 10 people died in a fire inside one of the facilities. The fire marshal recommended then that all boarding homes, retirement centers and nursing homes be retrofitted with sprinklers, regardless of the year built. At the time, it affected nearly 40 facilities.

But the Drake fire does not warrant a change in the code, Cooper said.

"It was an isolated situation. It's one facility within the city," he said.

The fire at Drake was caused by human error, the fire marshal's report says.

A longtime Utilities mechanic changed the wrong filter on a turbine oil system and oil squirted out and hit the hot pipes below. The mechanic had received the go-ahead to change a filter in unit No. 5. The pressure, or shut-off valves, in the line had been closed off.

But the mechanic changed the wrong filter - one where the valves had not been closed. The filter cracked, and oil squirted out 3 feet, hitting the 950-degree hot steam pipes, the fire marshal's report says.

"Yes, if properly designed, the sprinkler system may have made a difference," Cooper said. "It's important to note, a sprinkler system does not prevent the fire. The sprinkler system is designed to control the fire until the firefighters get there to extinguish it."

Most of the damage inside the power plant was to unit No. 5, the oldest of the three turbines. Units 6 and 7 were damaged because they were suddenly shut down. Utilities officials have restarted unit No. 6 and expect to have unit No. 7 running by fall.

Utilities hired Sargent & Lundy, a Chicago-based engineering firm, to conduct a third-party investigation into the fire. Luke said changes to procedure may prove more important than adding sprinklers.

"The way you stop the fire is you prevent that mechanic from walking up and making a human error," Luke said. "It has nothing to do with having a sprinkler or not having a sprinkler."

City Council President Keith King was not as quick to dismiss the AIG recommendations. He said AIG identified vulnerabilities, and Utilities should have paid more attention.

"It's also concerning to me that the person who was putting in the filters was working by himself when they knew there was a potential problem," King said.

King said the City Council, which doubles as the Utilities board, should be reviewing the insurance company's recommendations. The Utilities board never knew that sprinklers were recommended and therefore never discussed it, he said.

Luke, and others at Utilities, are not convinced that an expansion of the sprinkler system inside the coal-fired plant would have made a difference in the May 5 fire.

"It is not necessarily standard in the industry," Luke said. "There are other issues with adding the sprinklers. When they go off, what do you do with all the water?"

Council member Don Knight said the Utilities board is typically focused on big-picture issues rather than day-do-day operations like risk management. But post-fire, Knight said he expects to see all of AIG's recommendations, which include providing smoke detection in critical areas and installing an automatic valve for shutting off the gas supply for the hydrogen storage tank.

"We are doing Monday morning quarterbacking," Knight said. "But once there has been a major thing like this, it is within our purview to question Jerry (Forte, Utilities CEO) on what he is doing to make sure this doesn't happen again."

Expanding the sprinkler system to meet AIG's recommendation is not out of the question, Luke said. The staff and consulting firms still are evaluating the fire. Utilities may also consider foam or other fire suppression devices.

"Undoubtedly, we will have a discussion with our insurance company," Luke said.

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