The case for residential fire sprinklers has been debated in the United States for years. But today, model building codes require the installation of automatic fire sprinklers in all one- or two-family new home construction. California (statewide) and Maryland (county by county) have adopted the automatic fire sprinkler provisions of the model building code. Yet opponents continue to work, state by state, to ban residential fire sprinklers.
“Home builders in some states have been successful in getting state law amended to either delay the implementation of the building code or prohibit local jurisdictions from adopting those requirements,” says Steve Muncy, president of the American Fire Sprinkler Association. “And that’s the worst of all possible worlds, when a state government is telling local communities they can’t require home fire sprinklers.”
A September 2013 report from the National Fire Protection Association estimated that fire stations across the country responded to 365,000 home structure fires in 2012. These fires caused 2,380 civilian fire deaths, 12,875 civilian fire injuries and $7 billion in direct damage. NFPA established Standard 13D, which is the national standard for fire sprinkler installation in one- and two-family dwellings and manufactured homes.
While opponents contend smoke alarms are sufficient to save lives, it’s the combination of smoke alarms and fire sprinklers that will be more effective in preventing death and injury to a home’s occupants, as well as protecting property and limiting damage. The NFPA’s Fire Safety Initiative website (www.firesprinklerinitiative.org) notes that while smoke detectors reduce the risk of dying in a home fire by about 33%, that percentage jumps to 80% when fire sprinklers are added to a home’s fire safety system.
Something else to consider when discussing the pros and cons of residential fire sprinklers is flashover, Muncy notes, which is the point when the fire begins to overtake the home. “It’s not a house that starts fires, it’s the stuff in the house that it burns,” he says.
It used to take about six to seven minutes for a home to reach the flashover point, he adds. Once the fire department is dispatched to the house fire, it may take three to four minutes for the trucks to arrive — sometimes as long as 10 minutes. But it’s usually enough time to put water on the fire before the house is a total loss.
But as new homes became tighter with better windows and doors, and are better insulated, flashover is taking place in 1 1/2 to two minutes.
“Flashover can happen before the fire department even knows about the fire,” Muncy explains. “And once you have flashover in the house, you can pretty much say it’s going to be a total loss. The issue is how do you spot flashover in its early stages? With a properly designed fire sprinkler system, the house will not hit flashover; it will probably contain the fire to that room and have the fire out by the time the fire department arrives.”
A more practical reason for fire sprinklers in local communities is the cost of providing water to put out fires. Muncy says the cost of providing fire services — fire houses, trucks, inspectors — is a real challenge to communities looking to save every dollar they can.
“It’s a very logical choice for many communities,” he adds. “Suppose a new subdivision is built and the city has to decide if its going to build two new fire stations or one. If two, how far apart are they located? Where will the water supply come from? Those kinds of issues really affect infrastructure. Many cities have looked at the fire sprinkler issue and said the requirement is needed because it lessens some of the city’s infrastructure costs.”
Muncy believes that resistance to sprinklers may dissipate with some home builders and developers as they realize the tradeoffs and tradeups they will have by including home fire sprinklers. The average price of a home fire sprinkler system is about $1.61 per sq. ft., but prices can be as low as $1 per sq. ft. in some areas. That may mean the difference in a prospective homeowner upgrading the carpet.
“If you’re looking at certain upgrades in a home, it doesn’t take long before you have far exceeded the cost of what a residential sprinkler system would provide,” he adds.
Adding a fire sprinkler division
The U.S. Census Bureau’s “American Housing Survey for the United States: 2011” reports that 5% of occupied homes had fire sprinklers, compared to 4.6% in 2009 and 3.9% in 2007. Of homes constructed in the previous four years, 20.5% of them have sprinklers (18.5% in 2009).
In areas where the new building codes are implemented, installation of residential fire sprinklers is a growth opportunity for plumbing contractors seeking to expand their businesses. And the first step is to get the training needed to properly install these systems in homes.
For the open-shop plumbing contractor, that first stop be to the American Fire Sprinkler Association, which was created in 1981 specifically for the purpose of developing and making available apprenticeship programs for open-shop fire sprinkler contractors.
“If a company installs fire sprinklers in accordance with the applicable standards, we consider them a fire sprinkler contractor,” says Muncy, who started at AFSA in 1988 and was promoted to president in 1991. “We have mechanical contractor members that install fire sprinkler systems as well as plumbing contractors. But we don’t look at it from a plumbing or mechanical business standpoint. We look at it from a standpoint of proper training and qualification to install fire sprinkler systems.”
AFSA has chapters in 22 states offering not only apprenticeship training but training in piping layout, system installation, fire sprinkler maintenance, hydraulic calculations, seismic bracing, codes and inspection of systems. Online training (also available to nonmembers) is provided via the Fire Sprinkler eCampus, as well as educational webinars. The association is accredited as an authorized provider by the International Association for Continuing Education and Training and offers continuing education credits for many of its programs.
Muncy notes about half the states require some kind of licensing or certification for fire sprinkler contractors. The National Institute for Certification in Engineering Technologies provides certification for layout, testing and inspection of water-based fire sprinkler systems. Certfication levels are:
• Level 1. For beginners, this level requires students to demonstrate they have a grasp of the essentials that will allow them to progress in their chosen fields.
• Level 2. For those in the field for a year or two, the knowledge examined is more wide-ranging and more career-specific. Earning a Level 2 certification demonstrates that professionals are actively involved in the field and interested in staying there.
• Level 3. For individuals who work independently — those who have the knowledge, skills and responsibility to work without immediate supervision. Professionals at this level may have begun to take on some supervisory responsibilities.
• Level 4. This is the expert level. Those professionals who achieve Level 4 will take on the most difficult assignments and troubleshoot when problems arise.
“For many states that license fire protection and fire sprinkler contractors, the most common requirement is that a person on staff — usually one of the owners — must be at least a NICET Level 3,” Muncy says. “Some states may have different requirements for companies that only install residential systems or companies that only do commercial installs.
“Typically a contractor licensed as a fire sprinkler contractor can install stand-alone fire sprinklers in one- and two-family dwellings, in multifamily dwellings and in commercial buildings.”
For plumbing contracting companies interested in getting into the fire sprinkler business, Muncy cautions about using it as an add-on service.
“One thing we have noticed in the industry is companies that are most successful in the installation of fire sprinklers create a separate subunit within their organization focusing just on sprinklers,” he says. “We find those companies who really want to establish a good presence and have success in the residential market need to devote a division to the fire sprinkler business.”
When homeowners or others in the construction industry have questions about residential fire sprinklers, Muncy refers them to the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition to debunk the myths associated with fire sprinklers in the home (AFSA is a board member of HFSC). The HFSC website has an interactive video guide to home fire sprinklers, covering topics such as why home fire sprinklers are needed, how they work, building with fire sprinklers, retrofitting sprinklers and living with sprinklers.
For professionals, the site’s virtual sprinklered house includes videos explaining the NFPA-13D residential standard, fire sprinkler installation, types of fire sprinkler systems and home system water supply.
Stand-alone or multipurpose?
In addition to contractor training, the association is heavily involved in promoting the use of fire sprinklers in buildings across the country. The technical services department gives informal interpretation assistance to members with codes and standards issues, Muncy says.
AFSA works with groups such as the NFPA and the HFSC to create awareness with homeowners, as well as within the industry, on the dangers of fire and the life-saving attributes of home fire sprinkler systems.
Muncy notes the large majority of installed residential fire sprinklers are stand-alone systems, but the market for multipurpose systems (combined with existing cold-water lines) is still developing. On a retrofit project, a multipurpose system may be difficult to install and a stand-alone sprinkler system may make more sense.
“It depends on the architecture of the house and the locality of the water supply, among other factors, but there is a place for both systems,” he explains. “In some cases you find multipurpose systems that use PEX piping or even CPVC may be a good choice for that area. In other areas, stand-alone systems may be superior.”
For example, a multipurpose fire sprinkler system is installed in a home that is only used part of the year — the homeowner moves from Maine to Florida each winter. Before the move to Florida, the water supply to the home is turned off. That includes the fire sprinkler system. With a stand-alone system, the water supply can be turned off but the fire sprinkler system is still supplied with water in case of a fire.
This is where proper training becomes critical. Each system has its own particular design and installation characteristics, its own pricing and materials.
“Because of their history in commercial, industrial and residential construction, fire sprinkler contractors see stand-alone systems as a system designed to put out fires, save lives and property,” Muncy says. “When you go to the multipurpose side, the scope changes for some plumbers; they look at the fire sprinkler system as an extension of the water supply or the plumbing system in a home. It’s not that they don’t care about life safety; but their focus is on the plumbing, not the sprinkler system.
“When the standards call for the sprinkler heads to be located in specific locations to provide adequate coverage for the room, you have specific kinds of flows and need to meet certain kinds of hydraulic calculations — it’s not simply adding sprinkler heads to a plumbing system.”