#226 – The Conflict Over Residential Fire Sprinkler Requirements, Part 1

Support for residential fire sprinklers laws are bolstered by a track record of safety

Fire sprinklers have been commonplace in commercial buildings since the 1960s and in commercial-residential structures (hotels, apartment buildings, and condos), since the 1990s. But whether they should also be required in new single-family homes and duplexes has been debated for years, often pitting fire departments and safety groups against the real estate and construction industry.

Although smoke alarms have helped significantly reduce death and injury over the last 40 years, fire officials are seeing the trend begin to level out. They want to bring in an additional solution that actively does something to stop or slow a fire: the automatic fire sprinkler. Much like their commercial counterparts, residential sprinklers are highly effective at saving lives and property.

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) reports that homes with sprinklers have an 81 percent lower civilian death rate than homes without them, and 31 percent fewer civilian injuries. When fire sprinklers AND hardwired smoke alarms were present, the home fire death rate was a whopping 90 percent lower.

Building codes provide a framework for new mandates

Model building and fire codes have been actively updating residential fire sprinkler requirements over the past two decades, starting with commercial-residential buildings, then expanding to include townhouses and ultimately extending to include all new one- and two-family dwellings as early as 2009.

Forty-nine states and the District of Columbia use the International Residential Code (IRC) for single-family-home construction. This wide-ranging residential code sets minimum design and construction guidelines for one- and two-family homes and townhouses. The 2009 and 2012 editions of the IRC joins NFPA 101: Life Safety Code and NFPA 5000: Building Construction and Safety Code in requiring fire sprinklers to be installed in all new homes. NFPA codes have included this since 2006.

As a model code, the IRC is intended to be adopted in accordance with local laws and practices. Each state adopts the new code over time—some may take up to 10 years or more to implement a new version of it—and states can reject specific parts of the adopted code for their particular jurisdiction. This is why residential fire sprinklers are not required in most areas, despite the mandate to install them in the latest editions of the IRC.

Residential fire sprinkler
Even though sprinkler requirements are nationally recommended, housing industry groups believe the mandates are too costly and burdensome. Source: Fire Smarts

Residential fire sprinkler requirements face relentless opposition

Despite their effectiveness, NFPA reports that sprinklers were present in only seven percent of reported home structure fires between 2010-2014. The Fire Protection Research Foundation estimated that only about six percent of U.S. homes were equipped with them in 2013.

These statistics raise the question: If fire sprinklers are so effective at safeguarding lives and property, why aren’t they routinely installed in homes?

To date, housing and building industry groups have been instrumental in spearheading efforts to block sprinkler mandates in at least 25 states. In New York, builders and real estate agents took the lead in opposing mandatory sprinkler requirements in new homes, and in Texas, a retroactive statewide ban overturned at least one city’s sprinkler requirement. Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie twice vetoed sprinkler requirements approved by the legislature. In Minnesota, builders took their battle to court to get the state’s code change reversed.

Bowing to the wishes of national and local home builders groups, Kansas, Missouri and 27 other states have enacted laws in recent years prohibiting local governments from passing their own fire sprinkler requirements for residential homes. A number of other states have elected to let local jurisdictions decide whether to adopt the sprinkler standard. Currently, most states do not require sprinklers.

While homebuilder groups have been successfully blocked many IRC sprinkler provisions, one notable exception is the state of California, where the IRC has been adopted with the residential sprinkler requirement included. The requirement, effective since January 2011, is estimated to increase the cost of a new home by an average of $5,000, according to the California Building Industry Association―an additional expense they claim will dampen an already sluggish housing market.

Supporters of the mandate, on the other hand, argue that it is an essential safety measure that will protect homes and people, especially in the wildfire-prone state of California. And an extra cost of $5,000 over the course of a 30-year mortgage adds only about $20 per month to an average loan payment.

Maryland and the District of Columbia are the only other U.S. jurisdictions where the requirement for builders to install sprinklers in new one- and two-family homes have been adopted. Other states, including South Carolina, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, came close but ultimately were unsuccessful―at least for now.

Installation costs are a flashpoint in the residential fire sprinkler debate

Even though sprinkler requirements are nationally recommended, housing industry groups believe the mandates are too costly and burdensome. In the U.S., the home-building industry spent $57 million over a 10-year period in an effort to block plans to require sprinklers in new homes―and in many cases, it has been highly successful.

In some instances, homebuyers have effectively resisted the mandatory requirement. For example, Pennsylvania added the sprinkler requirement to its statewide building code in 2011. Pennsylvania is a relatively rural state and many of its residents have limited access to public water systems. Many wells provide insufficient pressure for sprinklers and the alternatives, such as installing pumps or dedicated gravity tanks, add to the expense. The residents of the state successfully lobbied their representatives (with support from the Pennsylvania Builders Association) to repeal the IRC sprinkler requirement and home building resumed in the state―sans sprinklers.

The Fire Protection Research Foundation calculates fire sprinkler installation cost at about $1.35 per square foot. However, estimates from opposition groups are much higher—up to $5 per square foot. Housing industry groups argue that mandating sprinklers in all new homes would hike the price tag enough to put thousands of potential buyers out of the market and stifle the industry.

Cost of home fire sprinklers
Despite concerns about the cost of residential fire sprinklers, their expense per square foot has been going down—and could lower further as more sprinklers are required and installed. Source: The Fire Protection Research Foundation via The Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition

Proponents argue that home prices are more closely linked to underlying market conditions and other variables rather than simply building and materials costs. In addition, with new homes constructed in California, Maryland, and DC now equipped with sprinklers, little evidence suggests that the housing markets in these areas have been negatively impacted by the sprinkler requirements.

In fact, some areas of California saw sprinkler installation costs drop to less than $1 per square foot, and incentives for developers across the country—such as the reduced street width and higher density of structures that can be realized when installing sprinklers—further lower costs and increase ROI. The Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition (HFSC) has a great rundown of the incentives for developers and builders.

Stay tuned for a closer look at local battles over residential fire sprinklers

Residential sprinkler requirements remain a controversial subject in many regions in the U.S. And the ongoing debate gives onlookers an instructive lesson in the politics of public safety. In the next installment of this series on fire sprinkler code and legislation, we will closely examine at how various states and cities have enacted fire sprinkler ordinances and laws—or in some cases, resisted their passage.

Residential fire sprinkler

If you’re an installer or homeowner looking to buy components for a home fire sprinkler system, check out QRFS’s selection of residential sprinkler heads, as well as our dedicated residential risers.

If you have any questions about retrofitting an existing structure or need help finding an item, give us a call at 888.361.6662 or email support@qrfs.com.

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9 thoughts on “#226 – The Conflict Over Residential Fire Sprinkler Requirements, Part 1”

  1. The residential fire sprinkler is very important, especially in homes. well, we have such a law to prevent disaster. so we will build a house or remodel we will have to hire a remodeling expert to even plan where the fire sprinkler should be placed.

    • So I live in a town, they made it mandatory even after I proved that in a power outage a large part of the community wouldn’t benefit from a sprinkler system because they are on a well. When in a well and no power, the sprinkler doesn’t work. So how can a town force people to spend 15-18k on sprinkler when it won’t work without power. Power outages happen. It’s not our towns responsibility to take action when there had been 0 lives lost in my town due to fire. Especially since out homes are equipped with a spike detector which has proven to work since it became a reasonable solution for saving lives in homes . Plus it is an affordable option. I have proven this to the council and they still want to continue with enforcing . I find it unconstitutional, will continue to make this point. What happened to freedom. These towns are forcing it in areas that don’t have wild fires ever. It is understandable for Arizona to do this, because they have a huge issue with forest fires. But states like Maine??? Come on, there hasn’t been a fire that’s destroyed more than 3 homes in one incident . It’s just another way for town government to collect more money. Fire department has to do inspections on the system, you need to provide maintenance to make sure your sprinkler is up to par. So if the town makes you out one in. Why are they not maintaining it to make sure it works every single year.? That should be part of there responsibility, especially if they have taken the RESPONSIBILITY of making you put it in your home.

      • Rick — We respectfully disagree that home sprinkler mandates are done because the government wants to make money. For example, fire departments advocate for them because they wind up saving occupant and firefighter lives—and many mandates only gain traction after a deadly fire. Otherwise, mandates for homes are certainly open to debate.

        Regarding being on well water — that’s a good point about power outages. Other than using generators, an alternative would be using a gravity tank for home sprinklers. Thanks for reading.

  2. “an essential safety measure that will protect homes and people, especially in the wildfire-prone state of California” – wow, the sprinkler guys must consider the homeowners and residents of California to be mentally handicapped. A fully functional adult brain can clearly see that when the wildfire will hit your area, any sprinkler system designed to quench fires inside the home will be completely useless in stopping the fire engulfing your outside walls and roof. Congratulations, you home is now a smoldering pile of wet ash with agricultural irrigation in each of the former rooms.

    • Marlina — There may be some confusion over the use of the term “residential.” This blog is referencing one-and-two-family home residential systems. The latest model codes call for all new homes to be built with sprinklers, but there is resistance to this mandate from state and local governments, as well as construction associations.

      Model codes also call for high-rises (including residential high-rises) to be built or retrofitted with sprinklers. And there very possibly is a state-wide high-rise retrofit requirement in Missouri, though we are not well-versed on the law in all 50 states. But, for example, the city of Clayton, MO adopted the relevant model code and requires sprinklers in high-rises. For a look at the issue surrounding high-rise retrofits, you can check out this blog. Thanks for reading!

  3. Will E – I thought the same thing. For a fire starting inside the home, fire sprinklers might be awesome and could possibly put the fire out or give you time to get out. My biggest danger is from wildfires. If a wildfire comes and the walls and attic of the home are burning, what good are fire sprinklers inside the home going to do? Your house at that point will still burn down. My home has exterior fire sprinklers, to help keep wildfire from burning down my home. I also changed all the attic vents and sealed the cracks in the structure, including in the eves, to keep embers out.

    • AstroSteve (and Will E) — you are correct that standard home sprinkler systems will be of little value if a home is fully involved in a wildfire, but they can provide some protection. Fire protection pros note that radiant heat (instead of embers or direct contact with flame) can cause materials to ignite within a home, and interior sprinklers may also limit internal damage if the exterior ignites (ideally in tandem with specialized external sprinklers). Of course, as you note, there are significant limits to this protection. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  4. I am going to build a very small 400sf footprint structure off the gird of monumental construction solid concrete walls and roof. Cabinets will be metal. There will be limited combustible material inside consisting of a mattress. Water supply will be harvested rainwater. It will be around 9 miles from the nearest Cal Fire unmanned station. Under the circumstances I feel the requirement of a sprinkler system is punitive.


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