Watkins museum gets new sprinkler system

120-year-old building switches from gas to water for fire suppression

Steve Douglas, foreman with Jayhawk Fire Sprinkler Co. in Topeka, installs water pipe lines Tuesday in the attic of Watkins Community Museum of History, 1047 Mass. The museum is in the process of installing a new sprinkler system inside the museum.

A new sprinkler system is being installed at Watkins Community Museum of History.

The $75,000 system replaces a 10-year-old FM-200 gas system used to put out fires in the 120-year-old building at 1047 Mass. The switch from gas to water is being made after a lightning strike two years ago caused most of the gas to be expended when the suppression system was set off. There was no fire and no damage from the lightning strike.

The hydrofluorocarbon gas in five of six tanks at the museum was expended at the time of the lightning strike. They were not refilled because of the expense, leaving only one tank for fire suppression. It would have taken about $40,000 to refill the tanks, Rebecca Phipps, museum director, said.

“We decided it would be better to go with water,” she said.

The sprinklers are being installed on the top three floors, which includes the storage area for artifacts that are not on display. Once installed, the system will not protect the lower two floors or the basement.

Phipps said those floors would be covered once funds become available to install an entire system that she estimated would cost $100,000. The building does meet fire codes because there are fire extinguishers on all of the floors.

The sprinkler system is being installed by Topeka-based Jayhawk Fire Sprinkler Co. and it will take two or three more weeks to complete.

“It’s about the oldest building I’ve worked on,” Jayhawk foreman Steve Douglas said of the building constructed in 1888.

The storage room protected by the sprinklers includes numerous artifacts from different time periods, including clothing, military uniforms, textiles, washing machines, typewriters and computers. There are rows of shelves filled with boxes.

“There’s just about everything here that people used,” Phipps said.

The museum is covered by insurance but each one of the artifacts isn’t individually covered, Phipps said.

“That would be too expensive. Museums generally don’t insure all of (their) items,” she said.

If set off, the water could damage artifacts but that damaged can be reversed, Phipps said.

“You can’t reverse fire damage,” she said.

The sprinkler installation required a new water line to be installed to the museum. Workers have been doing that job for the past couple of weeks. Late last week, 11th Street between Massachusetts and Vermont streets was closed for that work. This week the street was open but one westbound lane was closed and the alley was blocked off.