Residential Fire Sprinkler Q & A
How did we get to this point?The first ordinance mandating sprinklers in new residential construction goes back to 1978 in San Clemente, Calif. But most industry watchers consider that the real starting point began in 1985 when the fast-growing community of Scottsdale, Ariz., mandated sprinklers for all new residential construction - and industrial and commercial construction, for that matter - by a vote of 6 to 1. (The law didn't take effect, however, until Jan. 1, 1986.)
Basically, the idea was to allow a smaller, better trained crew of firefighters to do more with less. Sprinklers are a great way to achieve that. It was a given that automatic sprinklers were a great benefit in fighting fires in commercial structures. So why not apply sprinklers to homes? What's more, commercial sprinklers are more for property protection; residential sprinklers are a life safety matter. The National Fire Protection Association says that eight out of every 10 fire deaths in the United States occur in residential structures.
Sprinklers do not necessarily reduce the number of calls for fires, but they do reduce the severity of the fire, thereby reducing danger to firefighters as well as the complexity of each incident. And because sprinklers could diminish the requirements of fire suppression, they also make it possible for the fire service to allocate more resources to emergency medical service and other rescue situations.
Today, Scottsdale citizens pay 30 percent to 50 percent less for fire services than residents in surrounding communities. At the same time, the city's fire service is able to employ over 50 percent more fire prevention personnel than the regional average.
In what other ways has the Scottsdale law paid off?After 10 years, the local fire department issued a report that also helped sprinkler proponents prove their case even more. After reviewing a decade's worth of firefighting, the report concluded the following regarding residential fires:
- Not one single fire-related death occurred in any sprinklered property. In addition, the fire department credited the ordinance with actually saving eight lives.
The average fire loss for property per sprinklered fire was $1,689 vs. $9,571 for a non-sprinklered fire. The total sprinklered loss for property was just $30,401, while the potential loss was estimated at $5.4 million.
Homeowners with sprinklered homes saved an average of 10 percent off homeowners insurance rates compared to owners of nonsprinklered homes.Meanwhile, many doom-and-gloomers predicted that this new requirement would price many would-be homeowners out of the market. But that has not been the case. It's a good thing to keep in mind that the population of Scottsdale increased 54 percent in this 10-year period.
Other data confirms the Scottsdale experience. The National Fire Protection Association, for example, analyzed national data collected between 1983 and 1992, and concluded that the number of fire deaths per 1,000 fires was reduced by 57 percent in homes with sprinklers.
What about ordinances in other parts of the country?As best we can estimate as many as 700 cities have some residential sprinkler laws of varying degrees on the books. The Residential Fire Safety Institute has a list of laws on its Web site (www.firesafehome.org).
What national standards are these local ordinances using for sprinkler design and installation?NFPA 13D covers single-family homes. Other associated standards are NFPA 13, which governs sprinklers in nonresidential structures and residential buildings higher than four stories. NFPA 13R applies to multifamily residences, such as apartment buildings, up to four stories.
Just what is the big fire-stopping advantage of having residential sprinklers?Basically, it controls the fire until the firefighters arrive, and gives occupants a chance of escaping harm in the meantime. Fire professionals talk a lot about "flashover." That's the point in which combustibles reach a temperature hot enough to burst into flames, no matter how far away you are from the initial fire source. In other words, you aren't safe just because you're in another part of the house. Fire gases, heat and smoke are pushed into the other rooms with a huge wave of energy. Flashover greatly increases the fatality rate and requires more firefighters to control the blaze.
But aren't new homes built more safely than older homes?p>Fire officials believe that fire safety is a bigger issue for new homes since they are well-insulated and keep the heat from fire from dissipating. As a result, you've got a faster, hotter fire that cuts escape time.
Whether a home is "safe" or not because of its construction misses the point. Fires are caused by the homeowners, not the homes. Over 80 percent of residential fires result from careless smoking, cooking accidents and kids playing with matches.
Aren't smoke detectors enough?Smoke detectors have had a great impact, but their downside is as their name implies. Detecting a fire is one thing, but a warning isn't always enough. They don't do anything to stop the fire as sprinklers do.
What is the opposition's case against residential sprinklers?Bottom line, any opposition centers on leaving no choice in the matter. That would be what you'd expect from builders, and the National Association of Home Builders was certainly against the passage of the Scottsdale ordinance. Make it an option, they say, and leave it up to the homeowner to decide. To be fair, the NAHB has softened its stance in recent years even to the point where the full-scale model homes that are erected every year at the association's trade show are now outfitted with sprinklers.
Just how much does this add to the cost of a home?According to the 10-year Scottsdale study, the cost of installing residential sprinklers for a track home dropped from $1.14 per sq. ft to 0.59 cents per sq. ft. City officials say the mandatory requirement, established standards and increased competition have all had an effect on the price.
As of 1996, a residential sprinkler system for a 2,000 sq. ft. Scottsdale home cost around $1,180 - that was less than 1 percent of the going rate for new home at the time. What's more, many area homes include upgrades to landscaping, carpeting, tile, windows and the like. Nearly all of these upgrades were more expensive that the additional cost of residential sprinkler system.
What about other equipment such as pumps?It depends. Most systems don't require a separate pump, although the one pump might need to be upsized.
Builders are understandably reluctant to add to the cost of new construction. But many communities use "trade-offs" in other areas of its building codes in order to make the fire sprinklers more attractive. Some communities, for example, have reduced requirements for certain fire-rated building products. For entire subdivisions, variations in the amount of housing units, street width, turn-around radius in cul-de-sacs, and distance between fire hydrants, among other options, provide incentives for builders.
Still, homeowners shouldn't be forced into buying something they don't want, right?We suppose the last thing anybody in our industry would support is government mandates. We don't recall any PM readers readily embracing 1.6-gpf water closets. However, homeowners have very little say in many zoning, code and building requirements that apply to home sweet home.
If some communities can dictate to homeowners what color to paint their own house, why not at least talk about fire sprinklers? Our editorial background of suburban Chicago illustrates this with a couple of recent incidents. Clarendon Hills, Ill., made sprinklers mandatory in new residential construction a couple of years ago. For much of its life, Clarendon Hills was your basic suburb with your basic 2,000 sq. ft. suburban homes. Lately, however, many of the older homes have been bought just to be torn down by new homeowners who then erect veritable mansions in their places. The local fire district is particularly concerned about fighting fires in these new residences.
Lately, many homeowners have been besieging city council meetings, and a vote on whether to change the sprinkler law was a possibility as we went to press with this issue.
Meanwhile driving to work the other day, we heard about a homeowner getting a citation issued by the local police for having his Christmas decorations up in March. Can you guess which suburb? Clarendon Hills.
What about opposition of plumbing contractors doing this work as opposed to sprinklers contractors?The political rhetoric appears to have died down from where it was just a few years ago. The American Fire Sprinkler Association's position is that as long as plumbers have the proper training, they can install residential sprinklers.
While it varies all over the map, it's interesting to see what Wisconsin has done about training from a licensing standpoint. Currently, licensed plumbing contractors who complete 16 hours of training have a "tag" put on their license that allows them to do residential sprinkler installations. What's more, the state had mandated that all apprenticeship training will include residential sprinkler training. In other words, there will be a natural groundswell of qualified plumbing contractor/residential sprinkler contractors entering the Wisconsin marketplace.
It's no doubt a great market for plumbers just for the simple fact that they're there already doing the domestic plumbing and heating for new construction. Residential work isn't the size of work that's going to turn the heads of commercial sprinkler contractors.
How about new combination systems?Now there's an interesting question. Combination systems, or multipurpose systems, make a lot of sense from a cost standpoint since the sprinkler system shares its piping with the home's plumbing system. A recent change NFPA 13D allows multipurpose systems to be plumbed with 1/2-inch pipe. Prior to that, the pipe had to be a minimum of 3/4-inch.
While other types of piping are possible with such a system, Wirsbo is the only manufacturer that uses PEX for its piping material. A dedicated manifold feeds 1/2-inch PEX directly to a special fitting equipped with four outlets. This fitting is attached to the sprinkler head. The remaining three ports on the fitting are then used to feed other sprinklers or plumbing fixtures. The result is an interconnected grid of plumbing fixtures and sprinklers.
Some estimates (and not just Wirsbo's, but various firefighting associations') say multipurpose systems could cost half as much to install as separate systems for plumbing and fire protection. Wirsbo is currently marketing its AquasafeT system in 10 states. To ensure proper installation, plumbing contractors using the system have also agreed to attend training classes, follow set design procedures and undertake other aspects of marketing.
What makes this an interesting question is because trade groups that have diminished their opposition to letting plumbing contractors install residential sprinklers, aren't strongly in favor of multipurpose systems. Essentially, most sprinkler organizations are concerned that NFPA 13D, which does allow for multipurpose systems, doesn't offer much guidance in installing such systems. Wirsbo, for its part, says many of these objections are treated by its the alliance agreement signed by its customers.
All right, but aren't these things just plain ugly to have in your home?Residential sprinklers are smaller than their commercial cousins. They're also hidden away by a plate. The plate comes in standard colors, but for a price, manufacturers can customize the color.
The National Fire Sprinkler Coalition, a public relations organization founded five years ago by the AFSA, the NFPA and the National Fire Sprinkler Association, has been addressing common public misunderstandings. Will sprinklers leak? Sprinklers and their associated piping are pressure tested two to three times higher than a home's plumbing system. Don't all the sprinklers go off at the same time? Only in Hollywood. Heat from a fire triggers the sprinkler. Its water cools the hot fire gas so in nearly all cases there is not enough heat to open the next nearest sprinkler. According to the NFPA, 85 percent of residential fires are controlled by one or two sprinklers. Won't the water create more damage than a fire? A residential sprinkler sprays about 10-18 gallons of water per minute and operates early. Meanwhile, just one hose used by firefighters flows at 10 times that amount, about 175-200 gallons per minute. Which would you rather have?
How long do sprinklers last?All sprinkler components must meet United Laboratories standards, which tests them for a 50-year usable life with an engineering factor of two. That's a fancy way of saying that the components have a useful life of at least 100 years.
So after all this, what's the market look like today?Residential sprinklers are probably found in fewer than 2 percent of all one- and two-family homes. For multifamily units, it's probably less than 10 percent. Most of the business up to now has been driven by local laws, and several fire chiefs who we spoke with believe the tipping point will come when fire protection is adopted by national building codes.
At the same time, consumer awareness is growing. In some ways, sprinklers remind us of radiant heat (although it's certainly a much more expensive proposition). It's not necessarily a common option, and as a result, few homeowners know they have other means to heat their homes. But when they do hear about it, they ask for it - and if they can afford it, they definitely want it. Builders, however, aren't in love with anything that gums up the assembly line process of homebuilding so they actively discourage it. Meanwhile, one brave contractor can turn on enough people to beat back anybody else's objections and, we hope, build a profitable niche business.