The reason for being late this time was the same as with most other trips — a long-winded telephone call. I didn’t want to hang up because I felt I was defending the honor of our profession. The person on the other end was reading a letter from a fire professional who, in his words, trashed my good name, bordering on slander. As he read the letter, it became immediately apparent that he trashed not only myself but also the entire plumbing profession.
Stay Out: The author was a fire inspector association representative from Florida. His comments, addressed to the NAPHCC, were basically that plumbing contractors should stay out of the residential fire sprinkler business. The reason is very simple — sprinkler contractors know how to do it, and the plumbers will destroy the market that the fire inspectors have striven so hard to build.
The beauty of this wonderful letter is that just about everything he quoted me as saying was wrong. The few items he got correct, he managed to twist out of context. By the time I was done listening to the letter, I came to the realization that every plumber has absolutely no concept of how water runs through pipes. This can only be understood by sprinkler contractors.
One of the nice things for me is that I wrote a book on residential fire sprinkler systems. With my words published, you would have to be a fool to think I would publicly proclaim the opposite of what I wrote. My problem was defending the honor of every plumbing contractor. I realize that this derogatory opinion is not held by every sprinkler contractor or fire guy. However, on my drive to the airport, I was bothered that someone would go through the trouble to write such a letter.
After running to the gate (a mile away) I was out of breathe as I sat down. I looked around and realized that I had boarded a Boeing 777, the new wide–body aircraft. One of the neat features of this plane is the entertainment center that each seat has. Having never flown a 777 before, I decided to sit back and enjoy the flight, and try to forget about this phone conversation.
How Many Years? The first thing I turned on in the entertainment center was the 21-channel music system. Going backwards, I landed on Channel 21, which was playing a Peter, Paul, and Mary concert. Peter was just announcing that while this next song was very appropriate in the ’60s it is still appropriate today. They began to sing “Blowing in the Wind,” one of my favorite PPM songs. I started to wonder how many years it would take for every fire inspector and sprinkler contractor to realize that the ultimate goal is to sprinkler every residential building. For that matter, how many years will it take for plumbing contractors to include residential sprinklers as an option when they install the potable water system.
It quickly dawned on me that they just don’t get it, and unfortunately, we don’t get it either. Thousands of new dwellings are constructed each year, and a very small percentage have a residential sprinkler system. The reason for the lack of sprinklers is simple—we are not selling and marketing them correctly.
This very upset, anti-plumber fire guy said plumbers are destroying their ability to develop a market. I am not mad at this fire guy, I just think he has to take a step back and look at reality. Fire types have been trying to promote residential sprinklers for 20 years. At the rate they’re going, it will take another 1,000 years to make a dent.
One of the reasons for the failure has been the bull-in-the-china shop approach. Many fire guys thought that the way to get residential sprinklers was to mandate them by code. The first thing they often did was alienate the home builders. What they didn’t realize, was that the home builders had (and probably always will have) more political clout.
A much better approach is to work with the home builders. They have to be sold, like everyone else. Residential sprinklers have to be actively promoted as an upgrade or accessory. There is no better person to do that than the plumbing contractor. (By the way, in the areas of the country where residential sprinkler systems are prevalent, the fire guys worked hand–in–hand with the home builders.)
Safety Sells: I remember attending the Auto Show in New York back in the ’60s. At the time, Mercedes was promoting the ultrasafe automobile. The features Mercedes provided were seat belts in every car, a padded dashboard, and a collapsible steering wheel. Executives for Ford Motor Co. had decided that safety didn’t sell, people buy cars for their power and style. Today, we look for air bags, ABS brakes, passenger side air bags, and crash test results. Every car practically looks the same, and power is of little consequence.
If we consider today’s plumbing, just about every new home has either a whirlpool, or the opportunity to upgrade to a whirlpool. The manufacturers and the plumbing contractors have done an excellent job promoting this concept. Now for a look at a miserable statistic: On average, whirlpool bathtubs are used twice a year.
For about the same price we install a whirlpool, we can install a residential sprinkler system throughout the home. To compare statistics, a residential fire occurs once every 128 seconds in this country. That’s an eerie statistic. There are still more than 4,000 fire deaths a year in residential buildings. If the fire deaths occurred all at one time, there would be a general outcry. However, the fire deaths are normally one, two, or three at a time. When we read in the local paper about a fire death, we say, “Oh, that’s too bad.” But as plumbing contractors we should be saying, “Is a loss of life worth a few thousand dollars to install a residential fire sprinkler system?” I certainly don’t want to lose my life over a couple of grand.
Going back to the automobile, I just spent an extra couple of thousand dollars for some added safety equipment in my new car. In a few years, I’ll turn in the car and get a new one. If things go the way they have for the last six cars I’ve owned, I’ll never use that safety equipment. Yet, just in case there is an accident, I’ll pay for it any way.
Don’t you think most people will understand the same logic when considering residential fire sprinkler systems? We spend a lot more time in our homes than we do in our automobiles. New homes are coming equipped with smoke detectors, CO detectors, and alarm systems, yet none of those systems will put water on a fire. But a residential sprinkler system will. Test after test and fire after fire have proven a family can live through a fire in a home equipped with a residential fire sprinkler system.
I have faith in the plumbing industry. I firmly believe that a combination potable water/residential sprinkler system can be installed by plumbing contractors in every home. It takes some additional education that NAPHCC can provide. The very least you should do is order a copy of the book, The Plumbing of Residential Fire Sprinklers from NAPHCC. Call them at 800/533-7694. It’s easy reading, and easy to get into the business.
The only question you have to ask yourself is, “When will I seriously consider the residential sprinkler business?” I hope the answer isn’t Blowing in the Wind.