Why more builders and plumbing contractors are installing home fire sprinkler systems.

Jason Land (right) of Wolcott Plumbing Contractors supervises the install of a multipurpose fire sprinkler system at one of the Arbor at Villebois home. Photo credit: Leah Nash

Just as smoke detectors raised controversy when introduced 30 years ago, residential fire sprinklers have stirred considerable debate in the construction industry over the last few years. Public resistance to home fire sprinkler installation seems to stem from four myths, says a recent research study from theNational Fire Protection Association’s Fire Analysis and Research Division.

1. Water damage.Sprinkler systems can release water in a nonfire situation, but the threat of nonfire water damage is negligible in home sprinkler systems because of their design. And only one or two sprinklers over the fire will activate to control the fire - not every sprinkler in the house, as Hollywood movies would have people believe.

The March 2012 NFPA report, “U.S. Experience with Sprinklers,” states that between 2005 and 2009, direct property damage from fire was lowered by 69% when residential fire sprinklers were installed - $6,000 with wet pipe sprinklers, compared to $20,000 in homes with no sprinklers.

2. Aesthetics.Fire sprinklers used in manufacturing and industrial settings are not the same as sprinklers designed for residential installations. Unobtrusive sprinkler heads - used in offices and hotels - are available for single-family homes as well as multifamily units such as apartment and condo buildings.

3. Risk of death, serious injury or significant property damage.In 2010, the NFPA reports that U.S. fire departments responded to 369,500 home structural fires. These fires caused 2,640 civilian deaths, 13,350 civilian injuries and $6.9 billion in direct damage. More than 90% of civilian structure fire deaths that year resulted from home fires.

From 2006 to 2010, the death rate per fire was lowered in fire-sprinklered homes by 83% compared to homes without automatic extinguishing equipment, the NFPA report notes. 

4. Affordability.A national 2008 report from the Fire Protection Research Foundation found that the average cost to builders to install NFPA 13D sprinkler systems in new homes was $1.61 per sprinklered sq. ft. Reduced labor costs and municipal trade-up incentives have made fire sprinklers a valuable way for home builders to protect their bottom line.

The use of plastic pipe also has brought down the cost of installation in new construction and the retrofit of existing structures, says theU.S. Fire Administration.

The Home Fire Sprinkler Coalitionnotes that an installed fire sprinkler system is paid for over the life of a mortgage, just as is the home’s electrical or plumbing system. A national poll conducted by Harris Interactive showed that two-thirds (69%) of U.S. homeowners say having a fire sprinkler system increases a home’s value.

Extending the plumbing system

When Arbor Custom Homes in Beaverton, Ore., was deciding which fire sprinkler system to install in its Arbor at Villebois neighborhood (Wilsonville, Ore.) in 2004, its use of Uponor PEX tubing for its hot- and cold-water plumbing systems made it easy to extend the plumbing system and install multipurpose fire sprinklers. These cost-effective systems are combined with existing cold-water plumbing lines.

Dennis Dunning, estimator for Troutdale, Ore.-based Wolcott Plumbing Contractors, notes that about 90% of new homes in Oregon are plumbed with PEX tubing. Arbor has built more than 300 homes in the Arbor at Villebois neighborhood protected with fire sprinklers.

“Fire sprinklers fall right in line with our focus on innovative, new building practices and high performance,” saysBrad Hosmar, chief operating officer forArbor Custom Homes. “They also help meet important standards, such as comfort, safety and security.”

With Villebois’ 18 different floor plans for residences, designing a layout for each floor plan could have been difficult with a rigid-pipe, standalone fire sprinkler system. However, the flexibility of PEX-based multipurpose fire sprinklers made it easily adaptable from one floor plan to the next.

Wolcott’s price for residential fire sprinkler installations in neighborhoods such as Villebois is right in line with the national average of $1.61 per sprinklered sq. ft., Dunning explains. On average, incorporating fire sprinklers into the plumbing system adds only one to two more days to the production schedule.