Eight out of 10 fire deaths in the United States occur in the home. But smoke alarms and sprinkler s

After buying a home in the picturesque Emerald Hills area of Edmonds, Wash., Hans Lammersdorf hired a local contractor to completely rebuild the 4,200-square-foot house to his specifications. But Lammersdorf’s plans for his Puget Sound-area dream house nearly went up in smoke earlier this year, when a careless construction worker discarded a cigarette butt into a trash can filled with rubbish and building materials. No one was there when the fire started. The construction crew had left for the day, and the Lammersdorf family hadn’t moved in yet.

Fortunately, though, RPI Fire Protection, based in Arlington, Wash., had just installed a 28-head residential fire sprinkler system in the home, at the suggestion of the city of Edmonds. A single sprinkler activated to extinguish the fire, which started in a heated area of the garage.

Lammersdorf had voluntarily elected to install the sprinkler system. However, a growing number of local jurisdictions are opting to make fire sprinklers mandatory for new home construction. The reason is simple: Residential fire sprinklers save lives and property.

According to the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition, the combination of smoke alarms and fire sprinklers reduces fire death rates and property damage by 82 percent. The Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition is spearheading an effort to educate the public—and local jurisdictions—about the value of home fire sprinkler systems. As more cities, counties and states adopt residential sprinkler requirements, homeowners will increasingly turn to security and fire system dealers to install and monitor the systems. Often, especially in high-end homes, a fire sprinkler system is integrated with home security. The moment a sprinkler activates, an alarm is forwarded to the central station, the fire department or both.

In the case of the Lammersdorf home, a local alarm was not yet wired, and the sprinkler system wasn’t tied into a central monitoring system. As a result, the sprinkler activation went undetected until Lammersdorf dropped by the house at 9:30 a.m. the next day. The local water department estimates that the single sprinkler operated for about 15 hours before Lammersdorf arrived and the valve was shut off. Water had continued to flow long after the fire was extinguished.

The activated sprinkler prevented hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of property damage. The total fire damage was an estimated $30—the price of the waste container. But the total property damage was an estimated $2,400, resulting from water damage to drywall and three electrical low-voltage lighting transformers.

Most of the water damage could have been prevented if the sprinkler system had been monitored, says Ken Robinson, owner of RPI Fire Protection, which installed the system. The activated sprinkler, featuring a 3/8-inch recessed pendant-type head, was set to activate at 155º F. At water pressure of 28.4 pounds per square inch, a single sprinkler in the system was capable of delivering 16 gallons per minute of water on a fire. The system installed in the Lammersdorf home complied with all the requirements of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 13D code, the industry standard for fire sprinkler systems in one- and two-family dwellings.

Associations Strive to Educate the Public

Residential sprinkler systems have been available since the 1970s. In fact, San Clemente, Calif., passed a sprinkler ordinance back in 1978, making it the nation’s first jurisdiction to require residential sprinklers in all new properties. Still, many homeowners are completely unaware of them. According to a recent NFPA survey, 92 percent of all respondents considered sprinklers an effective tool for protecting lives from the threat of fire. But only half of those surveyed knew that fire sprinklers could be installed in their own homes.

Heat-Triggered Sprinklers Activate Independently

Unfortunately for dealers, consumer misconceptions about sprinkler systems abound. The Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition has its work cut out. The most common—and nightmarish—scenario that homeowners envision is that a cooking mishap will cause all of the home’s sprinklers to activate, and the house will be flooded because of a burned casserole. The truth is, automatic fire sprinklers are individually heat-activated and connected to a network of piping with water under pressure. When the heat of a fire raises the sprinkler temperature to its operating point—typically 165º F to 175º F—a solder link will melt or a liquid-filled glass bulb will shatter to open that single sprinkler. The sprinkler will then release water over the source of heat, the fire.

Home Sprinklers Are Tightly Regulated

All residential sprinklers conforming to NFPA 13D must be listed. That means the manufacturer has submitted the product to an independent laboratory for testing against established standards. Both Underwriters Laboratories (UL) and Factory Mutual Research (FM) have established special listing categories for residential fire sprinklers.
So-called “quick response” sprinklers are a hybrid of both commercial and residential sprinklers. They are tested under the same criteria as commercial sprinklers, but have the fast response characteristics of home sprinklers. Some manufacturers developed these sprinklers by inserting the home sprinkler operating mechanism into a commercial sprinkler frame.

Cities Push for Mandatory Sprinklers

Despite these efforts to keep home sprinkler costs down, homeowners required to install a residential sprinkler system are still often resentful of the extra expense. Local jurisdictions approve or deny sprinkler system designs and installations, based on whether they comply with governmental codes and standards in place. Many dealers design the sprinkler systems that they install.

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