Water is often the first choice for firefighters and emergency responders when putting out fires. But why is water such an effective fire-extinguishing agent? This article explores the science behind water's ability to quench flames and keep us safe.
How does water extinguish fires?
Water is an effective fire extinguishing agent because it cools the fuel source and removes heat from the fire triangle. When water is applied to a fire, it absorbs heat from the flames and surrounding area, lowering the temperature and reducing the fire's intensity. Additionally, water can help to smother the flames by creating steam, which displaces oxygen and interrupts the chemical reaction that sustains the fire. However, it's important to note that water may not be effective for all types of fires, such as those involving electrical equipment or flammable liquids.
Understanding water as a fire-extinguishing agent
Knowledge and understanding of the physical characteristics of water are essential to becoming a fire protection specialist, as it is the most critical aspect of active fire protection systems. Water is an effective extinguishing agent because of its low cost, effectiveness, and availability. In addition, the physical properties of water mean that it is an effective combatant of all three sides of the fire triangle. These sides are the independent entities of oxygen, heat and fuel.
Physical properties of water
Water is economical, cheaper than non-water-based fire suppression agents, and more readily available. It also has very predictable properties. For example:
- It freezes at 0oC
- It boils at 100oC
- It weighs 1000 kg/m3
When water boils at 100oC, it turns to steam at a ratio of 1:1600. So for every unit of water that is boiled, 1600 units of steam will be produced. One litre of water becomes 1.6m3. Water has a specific heat of vaporization of 2.23 x 106 J/kg. It can remove that energy from a fire before turning it into steam.
It is a well-known fact that water will slow the growth of a fire, and this can be written as a simple equation to illustrate the combustion process.
Heat of Ignition + Oxygen + Fuel > λH(Heat) + Products of Combustion
Examining this relationship, it may be concluded that fire control depends on the ability to reduce one of the three components required by the combustion process. Water can effectively control all three components due to its properties. Because water expands so drastically when it turns to steam, the air becomes diluted with steam, which results in the displacement of the oxygen molecules by water vapour molecules. This reduces the amount of oxygen available to the fire and helps control combustion.
A study of engineering hydraulics requires an analysis of the physical laws and principles that might apply to any fluid. However, for reasons shown earlier, water is the most critical fluid in fire protection. Therefore this text will explain the behaviour of water at rest and in motion.
Water has the chemical formula H2O and has a molecular weight of approximately 18 grams per mole. This equates to a density of 1000kg/m3, although this density varies slightly with temperature and pressure, as shown in the table below:
However, the changes in density are sufficiently small over the temperature and pressure ranges most commonly encountered to allow deviations from 1000kg/m3 to be ignored for simplicity. Another factor affecting the density of the water is the level of impurities in the water. For example, saltwater has a density of 1027kg/m3. Again for simplicity, it can be assumed that water is incompressible due to the insignificant changes in density under a significant change in pressure.
Another important relative measurement is specific gravity (Sg), the ratio of the substance's density to another's. Or,
Sg = wa/wb
Specific gravity refers to a material's weight density ratio to water's at 4oC. So this means that the specific gravity of water is 1000 kg/m3 at 4oC. In this case, pressure and temperature must be taken into effect. Particularly with gases, the weight density changes significantly with pressure and temperature. Values of the specific gravities of some common substances are shown in the table below.
Water freezes and boils at 0oC and 100oC, respectively, at standard pressure and temperature, at sea level and atmospheric pressure. The boiling and freezing points are affected by pressure, as expected. But when water boils, it expands to 1700 times its previous size. This is important as the expansion of water as it freezes causes undrained automatic fire sprinkler piping in improperly heated buildings to break and underground piping not buried deep enough to rupture.