Jill Bauer, vice president of Pittsburgh-based Albert L. Bauer Plumbing, recalls when her company - which is focused on new-home construction - began installing residential fire sprinklers in the spring of 2010, there was some initial trepidation.
“When the guys first started they would say, ‘Oh this is so hard. It’s going to take so much time,’” she says. “It’s interesting to see how much more comfortable they are now.”
Bauer says fire sprinkler training definitely helped smooth her company’s entry into this new business branch, which was sparked by Pennsylvania being one of two states (California is the other) to fully adopt the International Residential Code’s fire sprinkler mandate for all one- and two-family residences built after Jan. 1, 2011. Other states, counties and municipalities throughout the United States have adopted, or are in the process of adopting, the code’s sprinkler mandate in varying degrees.
“If you learn from the ground up, you are going to be more informed,” says Bauer, who estimates her company has installed sprinklers in 25 dwellings since last spring. “I would rather have growing pains on one of every 10 jobs I do than every job I do.”
With more localities projected to adopt the IRC mandate, additional opportunities will be created for plumbing and mechanical contractors to branch out into the residential fire sprinkler installation business. Thus, there will be a greater need for training on not only the life-safety systems themselves, but on the rules, regulations and business practices that accompany them.
“It’s a learning curve for everybody,” states Sprinkler Technology Design President David Hughes, whose Bozeman, Mont.-based company consults on fire sprinkler projects. “Once a new jurisdiction says yes to the code, everybody has to get up to speed on the steps it takes to do it and what needs to be accomplished for the enforcement and implementation of the code.”
What's out thereFire sprinkler manufacturers and fire safety associations alike offer a variety of different training options for contractors ranging from classroom courses to Internet-based training to hands-on, jobsite instruction.
FBC Building Solutions’ BlazeMaster brand has trained more than 20,000 installers in the past five years alone. Matthew Kuwatch, the company’s global business director, estimates 5,000 to 6,000 new installers are trained each year on BlazeMaster fire sprinkler products.
“We have close to 100 installer trainers in the U.S.,” he notes. BlazeMaster also has an online training course, but Kuwatch recommends contractors attend live, interactive training sessions.
Uponor not only offers classroom training, but sends a qualified trainer out to a contractor’s first fire sprinkler job and helps guide the tradesman and his crew through the installation process.
“We’ll go to the jobsite with the plumber crews and spend a day or two there helping them install the product,” says Jayson Drake, Uponor’s senior product manager for fire safety and plumbing. “That training is putting the installer into a real-world situation.”
The company recently went live with a fire sprinkler-specific Web site that installers, builders and code officials can use to find videos, case studies and industry links to training courses, technical support and local contacts for their specific states.
Ted Stump, president of Apex Professional Mechanical Services in Lenhartsville, Pa., had an Uponor rep with him when he installed a fire sprinkler in a one-level residential home in Lower Macungie Township, Pa., in early 2010.
“With the first one, you have an idea of what to do, but you’re with someone else that has gone through all of the installation steps and can give you pointers,” he says. “After that, I was pretty comfortable putting them in myself.”
Viega offers several different training courses at its Nashua, N.H., facility. The training center features a computer lab for software design and hands-on installation space.
“We’re trying to take a different approach and be more industry-focused as opposed to here’s how to use a Viega product,” notes Jason McKinnon, Viega’s manager of training and technical support. “Our goal is to make the training as valuable as possible for customers taking time out of their day.”
For Jay Lamb, owner of Lamb Plumbing and Heating in Westbrook, Maine, taking the Viega training course swung the door wide open to another revenue stream for his business.
“My contractors I work with didn’t want to go elsewhere for sprinklers. They asked me if I’d be interested in working with fire sprinkler systems and I said yes,” Lamb explains. “I took the course and I would say it’s very valuable. I’ve quoted about eight to 10 jobs since, and I’m working on my third sprinkler system now.”
Jim Brunetti, who works in commercial operations at Tyco Fire & Building Products, says the company’s monthly general sprinkler training course is packed with attendees. Tyco offers an array of training options, including field installation.
In terms of trade groups, the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors-National Association (PHCC) has partnered with Fire Smarts, a provider of fire protection education and training resources, to offer a 40-hour training program for fire sprinkler installers and inspectors to obtain their ASSE 7000 certification, as well as a number of live and online seminars on the topic.
“There is a great opportunity here but it does require some upfront investment in training,” Fire Smarts President Ryan Smith states. “My advice is get educated and seek out the educated.”
The American Fire Sprinkler Association (AFSA)not only offers a correspondence course for installers, but also has a two-week in-house training school.
“The two-week course provides an overview and introduction into the residential market and the different kinds of systems that apply to different kinds of homes and occupancies,” AFSA President Steve Muncy says. “The two-week course is not so much for an installer, but for a company owner looking to get into the residential side of the business.”
The National Fire Sprinkler Association (NFSA) offers more than 24 seminars (one-, two- and half-day seminars) covering sprinkler systems, fire pumps and standpipe systems to attendees that need basic through advanced levels of training, while the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has seminars available covering installation, hydraulics and fire pumps, as well as inspection, testing and maintenance of water-based systems.
More than just an installationMuncy stresses proper training ranges well beyond just the actual installation of a system.
“A fire sprinkler contractor that has been doing this for many years understands things like NFPA requirements and hydraulic calculations,” he says. “A plumber probably hasn’t had any exposure to that. You’re not installing another fixture. You’re installing a life-safety device with strict rules that define how they are to be installed. People have to understand the bigger picture with what rules go with these systems.”
Thus being familiar with state, county and municipal codes is paramount in the training process.
“We work in four counties and it’s different in each area,” states Jayson Lawrence, owner of Vandergrift, Pa.-based Lawrence Plumbing.
Securing additional liability insurance is another topic that is sure to become more prevalent as contractors continue to enter the fire sprinkler business.
“Right now, there are limited insurance companies to choose from,” Bauer says. “I think it’s more of the insurance companies seeing how this is all going to play out. I think once we’ve all been around awhile doing this, insurance companies will be a little more warm and fuzzy.”
Getting it rightWhile proper training on any job is important, it’s amplified exponentially when dealing with residential fire sprinklers.
“Our biggest concern is some plumbers may rush forward to put in systems without a good background and understanding of what they are doing,” Muncy says. “We’ve seen cases where the argument is made that they don’t need additional training because they have a plumber’s license. That’s rather shortsighted because it’s a different system. They do need additional training.”
John Zink, vice president of education and programming for the PHCC Educational Foundation, is in favor of training that expands beyond just installers. It’s a good idea to invite local inspectors and other officials in the process to attend the educational sessions.
“That way everybody sees the same training and agrees from the start on how the work should be done,” he says. “It also helps to build the relationship between the contractors and the building officials.”
Numbers don't lieStatistics drive home an eye-opening reminder of how vital thorough training on the subject is. According to Fire Smarts, 80 percent of all U.S. fire deaths in a typical year come from residential homes, while an average of eight people a day perish in home fires. A joint research project from FM Global and the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition shows automatic fire sprinklers can reduce fire damage by up to 97 percent.
“It’s incumbent that contractors be up to speed on what they are doing so they get it right,” notes Alan Larson, a manager in the technical services department at Reliable Automatic Sprinkler Co. “This is very serious. You’re talking about systems truly intended to be life-safety systems.”
Smith adds: “The worst thing that could possibly happen is some of these systems are installed poorly and they fail in the event of a fire, and then the public loses confidence in the systems. If they are installed correctly, you have the best form of home fire protection available. Designers, installers and inspectors have to be properly trained.”