BY ROBERT P. MADER
Of CONTRACTOR's STAFF
HOLLISTON, MASS. — FlexHead Industries has filed patent infringement lawsuits against eight defendants, charging them with infringing on its patents to attached flexible fire sprinkler connections to suspended ceilings in office buildings.
FlexHead sued The Viking Corp., Victaulic Co., EasyFlex, Supply Network, Gateway Tubing, Yong Won USA, AF USA (AquaFlex) and Midland Steel. The lawsuits seek damages for infringement of four of FlexHead's U.S. patents. The lawsuits were filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts.
The sprinkler connectors all use some manner of braided or corrugated flexible stainless steel hose that is often used in water or natural gas supply applications. FlexHead, however, is suing about the technique used to connect that hose to the ceiling.
In its complaints, FlexHead alleges that the defendants are infringing four patents by making, using, selling, offering to sell or importing fire protection sprinkler support systems configured to be attached to a suspended ceiling grid or support structure. The products are marketed under trade names such as Viking SupplyNet Flexible Sprinkler Connection, Sidewinder Sprinkler Drop, Flex Drop, EasyFlex Sprinkler Drop, FireLock Flexible Drop System and AquaFlex.
Victaulic Co. spokesman James Renner said the company could not comment on pending litigation.
"The only thing we can say about the case is that we are vigorously defending the case and that we strongly believe that the patents are invalid and not infringed," said Easyflex's attorney, Vic Lin, a partner with Myers, Dawes, Andras & Sherman in Irvine, Calif.
Phone calls from CONTRACTOR to several other defendants were not returned.
FlexHead Industries invented the concept of flexible fire protection systems more than a decade ago, according to the company.
"There are several patents that speak directly to the support of flexible sprinkler connections to the ceiling grid or ceiling system," said Norman J. MacDonald III, president and CEO of FlexHead. "That's what the patent speaks to and that's what the suit is about. Others have been using similar connectors but not attaching them or supporting them from suspended ceilings."
MacDonald said his firm's background is in fire protection for semiconductor fabrication, and it developed ways to install sprinkler heads in grease ducts and exhaust ducts. FlexHead, which was founded in 1990, realized that there would be a market for flexible fire sprinkler connectors in office buildings if it could be made practical.
"Previously the connection had a whole support structure that was a bar across the room that was hung up to the girders," said MacDonald, who noted that his background is that of a sprinkler fitter and estimator. "That's what they used to do, so it was not commercially viable to run these bars across the ceiling. It was cheaper to hard pipe it. Our ceiling system provides an excellent opportunity to support and stabilize the flexible sprinkler connection in the ceiling."
Flexible connections are cleaner than running a pipe-threading machine in finished office space, he noted.
"It's labor intensive and that last 6 ft. is the real bugaboo," MacDonald told CONTRACTOR. "Our system allows a guy to go in with a couple of boxes and put these things in."
Some of the defendants have been infringing on FlexHead's patents for a while, he said, but the inclusion of flexible sprinkler connections in the 2007 edition of NFPA 13 was the impetus for the firm to protect its patents.
"These systems recently got into the NFPA codes, so it was time to protect our intellectual property," he said.
He further pointed out that flexible sprinkler connections perform better in earthquakes because they allow independent movement in all directions.
In addition to the four issued patents cited in the lawsuit, FlexHead has several other U.S. and international patents and patents pending to protect its flexible fire protection sprinkler support system inventions.
FlexHead is represented in the lawsuits by Fish & Richardson.