Residential sprinklers are mandated.

There is a saying that goes, “In order to make history, you have to change.” Well, that is what happened at the International Code Council code change hearing this September in Minneapolis. The change will impact you like nothing has in the past.

The ICC membership voted to mandate residential sprinklers in the International Residential Code. Beginning Jan. 1, 2011, all new homes and townhouses constructed under the 2009 International Residential Code will have to be protected with a residential sprinkler system.

To assist the plumbing profession, the requirements for residential sprinkler systems were added to Section P2904 of the IRC. This is in the plumbing requirements of the code. Included in the section is a new method for hydraulically calculating the pipe size for a sprinkler system.

The sprinkler industry believes that half of the installations will be installed by sprinkler contractors, the other half by plumbing contractors. It is a market that will be driven by whomever can provide the lowest cost system for the homebuilder.

When fully implemented, it is estimated that the residential sprinkler market will account for an additional 40 million sprinklers installed annually. That is a significant increase when compared to today’s modest numbers.

Before you get too excited, any entrance into the market will require contractors to be certified to design and install residential sprinkler systems.

Let's Get Trained

I’d like to state that a residential sprinkler system is an easy system to design and install. The system is nothing more than water, pipe and sprinklers. However, there is a little more to it than that.

The American Society of Sanitary Engineering is introducing a Series 7000 standard for certifying contractors and inspectors. The American Society of Mechanical Engineers is introducing a new standard on the educational requirements for residential sprinkler certification. Finally, ICC will be certifying contractors and inspectors.

Every one of these programs requires plumbing contractors go through education and training on residential sprinkler systems. It is assumed that a plumbing contractor already knows how to install pipe. Now it is a matter of knowing where to locate the sprinkler and how to size the system. You must also become familiar with the requirements in the IRC and NFPA 13D.

Design Basics

The market that will be strictly plumbing contractors will be the multipurpose piping system. This is a residential sprinkler design that combines the sprinkler system with the cold-water distribution system.

The other system is referred to as a stand-alone or two-pipe system. This is a system where the sprinkler piping is completely separate from the cold-water distribution system in the dwelling unit. For certain installations, a two-pipe system makes more sense, and is more economical, than a multipurpose piping system.

When the concept of a multipurpose piping system was first envisioned, everyone pictured a normal cold-water piping system that had branches for the sprinklers. The hot- and cold-water piping would run parallel, just like they always are in a residential building.

However, when plumbing contractors look at that concept, they begin to ask, “Why would I use so much piping to install it that way?”

Smart contractors quickly realize that, for a multipurpose piping system, you run the piping for the sprinkler system and have takeoffs for the plumbing fixtures. In other words, it is not the cold-water distribution serving the sprinkler system, it is the sprinkler system serving the plumbing system. This results in the most economical system installation.

At first look, a multipurpose piping system seems weird. The hot- and cold-water piping do not parallel one another. The hot-water piping runs like it normally does. Eventually, the cold-water piping parallels the hot water when the lines serve a plumbing fixture. In some locations, the piping runs completely parallel because the sprinklers happen to be spaced in the same location.

Questions Remain

One of the questions I get from plumbing contractors is, “What about backflow protection?” The answer is, there is none.

When you mention sprinkler system, many of you envision a large piping system with black steel pipe and all sorts of controls, fire department connections and a need for backflow to protect the potable water supply. A residential sprinkler system doesn’t have any of this. The piping is potable water piping materials, namely CPVC, copper and PEX.

After explaining that backflow protection is not required, I am then asked, “What about the dead ends supplying the sprinklers?” Answer: Heck, we have dead ends in just about every plumbing system installed. Why start worrying about them today?

We often call these dead ends rough-in for future plumbing. Other times it is the water supply to a bar sink that is never used, or to a sillcock during the winter months, or the spare bathroom that is never used. You get the idea; there is no problem.

Another common question asked by plumbing contractors is, “Where do I buy the sprinklers (heads) and the special CPVC and PEX sprinkler pipe?”

Not to worry. Within a few months, expect your plumbing supply house to start stocking sprinklers and sprinkler pipe. One of the complaints by plumbing contractors has been that they must buy the sprinklers and pipe from sprinkler contractors. The manufacturers realize that they need to adjust their normal method of distribution.

It is anticipated that all of the major sprinkler manufacturers will be distributing through the plumbing supply houses. Of course, they will also be handling any special orders for the fancy decorative sprinklers.

Many of you have probably already been approached by individuals promising you the world in the residential sprinkler market. It always amazes me how quickly the leeches get the word out that you need them to make millions. I received the first notice the day after the vote at the ICC hearing!

Some quick tips:
  • Be sure to use reliable sources for education and certification.

  • Be aware that the manufacturers of the pipe also provide training on installation techniques. (However, slick advertising doesn’t necessarily mean you will get the best product.)

  • And finally, while there is some time, I would not hesitate in developing a marketing plan for entering the business of residential sprinklers. Just be sure to do it well and do it right.