Residential Fire Sprinkler Debate Heats Up

If a leading fire-safety association prevails, automatic sprinkler systems would be code-required across the country for new construction of single-family and two-unit dwellings.

The requirement would open a new business opportunity for companies that install fire protection and life-safety systems, sources tell SSI.

The issue has already led to a squaring-off between the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and homebuilders lobbying to remove the requirement amid rising construction costs and the current housing crisis.

Sprinklers will be included in the International Code Council’s (ICC) hearings on the 2009 International Residential Code (IRC) from Oct. 24-31 and Nov. 4-11 in Baltimore. The council is expected to approve the final version of the code after hearings.

Four proposals from the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) will be presented at the hearings to remove the requirement from the code. 

NPFA’s Fire Sprinkler Coalition has prepared a seven-page response to douse those proposals that reads as a point-by-point rebuttal.

“The fact is that home fire sprinklers save lives and protect property from destruction by responding quickly and effectively to the presence of a nearby fire,” according to the coalition. “In fact, the risk of dying decreases by about 80 percent when sprinklers are present. Sprinklers also reduce the average property loss by about 71 percent per fire.”

If the IRC is approved with the regulation, NFPA would adopt NFPA 13(b) to set sprinkler guidelines. Individual states would then have the option of adopting the requirement into their building codes.

So far, builders in several states such as California and Arizona have dropped their opposition to sprinklers for new construction. The California Building Industry Association (CBIA) dropped its opposition in 2007, after the code council adopted it.

“CBIA opposed a national sprinkler mandate for over 20 years,” CBIA spokesman Bob Raymer tells SSI. “We finally lost that battle two years ago. We are now actively pursuing a variety of ways to help offset the cost of complying with the new national sprinkler mandate.”

Several proactive local municipalities (such as Beverly Hills and Santa Ana, Calif.) already require sprinklers before issuing a building permit.

Under the proposed 2009 IRC code, sprinklers would need to be installed in living areas and connected to the home’s main water line, according to Eric Price, president of Engineered Fire Systems Inc. in Grass Valley, Calif.

“On a commercial system, we would sprinkler every nook and cranny,” says Price, whose engineering company hires installers to add the systems. “In a residential system you only sprinkler inside the house. You only sprinkler areas that have a high occurrence of fire.”

The sprinkler heads, which discharge 13 gallons a minute, are usually hidden in ceilings behind a white cover (pictured above) that pops off when the heat reaches 135 degrees. Sprinklers usually become active at 155 degrees.

The systems cost end users about $2 per square foot of living area. Usually 10-12 heads are installed in a typical home. Also, a pod-shaped bell is installed along the roof line to alert neighbors if the residents aren’t at home.

Manufacturers of the heads include Reliable Automatic Sprinkler Co., Tyco Fire Suppression & Building Products and Viking Corp.

Price encourages companies that install fire systems and burglar alarms to consider getting into the sprinkler segment to broaden their base.

“If you’re in a state that isn’t currently putting in fire sprinklers and your state requires it, this is a big opportunity,” he adds. “You have to have somebody who’s forward-thinking.”

George Saadian’s Los Angeles-based Fire Protection Group Inc. installs about 50 fire sprinkler systems per year in single-family homes and duplexes. Saadian urged companies to contact and join their regional or state sprinkler associations to get code updates.

“Belong to sprinkler trade associations,” says Saadian. “Attend those meetings once a month; they’ll get updated.”


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