#57 – The War on Residential Fire Sprinklers

What is the war on residential fire sprinkler systems about?
Well, I wish there was a direct answer. Typical of most bureaucratic feuds, the issue has more to it than what meets the eye. Of course, there are important questions about fire sprinklers that need answers. Far too many people are either misguided or ignorant about residential fire sprinkler affordability, effectiveness, and potential impact on the housing industry.
BUT. . .
The other, and more impactful, reason that residential fire sprinklers are facing adversity comes down to dollars and cents.
To date, residential construction industry groups, such as the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) have influenced at least 25 states to reject mandated residential sprinklers. US homebuilders state that the push for fire sprinklers is stooped in greed. “You have a number of [sprinkler] manufacturers trying to promote a specific product,” said Steven Orlowski, program manager for construction, codes and standards at the NAHB. In response to International Residential Code’s (ICC) 2009 mandate that requires residential fire sprinklers in newly built single-family homes, NAHB’s communications director, Calli Schmidt, stated: “The only way for sprinkler manufacturers to make money is to focus on mandates. Otherwise, they’re not financially feasible.”
However, the same could be said for homebuilders.
Maria Figueroa, of the National Fire Protection Association, says the homebuilders’ reluctance to embrace expanded policies is rooted by a desire to sell houses. They fear that mandated fire sprinklers will create an overwhelming spike in house prices, and ultimately slow the housing market. “Protecting lives should be a priority over profits,” she says.
So who’s right? What’s the bottom line, and how do we find it? Bear with me and read on; I promise by the end of this article you will have enough information to pick a side and fight for what you believe in.
The Fire Risks in Modern Homes
Today’s homes are primarily constructed using composite wood beams and engineered lumber, for their reduced cost and quick installation. This growing trend concerns fire professionals since composite wood catches fire easier and burns faster. Engineered lumber is known as a “lightweight construction” product, and consists of wood fibers and materials bonded with adhesive.
In 2008, Underwriters Laboratories (UL) conducted a study comparing engineered lumber to traditional beam construction to calculate the time for a structure to completely burn down. The report, “Structural Stability of Engineered Lumber in Fire Conditions,” found a 12-and-a-half minute difference. Homes made from engineered lumber burned down in six minutes, whereas homes made from traditional wood materials burned down in 18-and-a-half minutes. That twelve-minute difference is time lost for your family to exit the home during an emergency.
To make matters worse, construction material is not the only driver of increased fire risk in modern homes. Modern furniture and carpeting are increasingly being made from synthetic material which also poses a far greater risk for catching fire. If these homes have open floor plans, the spread of fire is quickened even further. Walls and doors limit a fire’s oxygen supply and slow the growth of fires; if these are removed extensive damage occurs faster.
The Role of Residential Sprinklers
The change in building materials, increased use of synthetic furniture, and open floor plans has drastically reduced the time to FLASHOVER. When a room reaches 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit flashover occurs, where everything within will immediately combust and spread the fire rapidly from room to room.
During the 1970s, people on average had about 17 minutes to get out of the house before flashover. Today, that number is down to 3 or 4 minutes. Smoke detectors have no impact on the rate of flashover, their only job is to alert occupants to immediately exit the building – 3 or 4 minutes is just not enough time! This is where fire sprinklers come in; they activate at 155-200 degrees Fahrenheit, so this allows them to operate early and suppress fires in the beginning stages.
Your risk of dying in a home decreases by 80% if sprinklers are present.
Now that we have an understanding of the need for residential fire sprinklers, let’s move on and tackle some of the common myths that are garnering support for the opposition:
Residential Fire Sprinklers are More Affordable Than You Might Think
One of the more persistent claims regarding residential fire sprinklers is their cost. Some declare prices as high as $10,000-12,000! A study done by Newport Partners LLC in 2014, Home Fire Sprinkler Cost Assessment, revealed something quite different. The study developed cost estimates for 51 house plans in 17 communities. It determined that the cost per square foot ranged from .81 cents to $2.47, with a mean of $1.35. Let’s do a little math. Using the average cost of $1.35, a residential sprinkler system in a new 2,000 square foot home would cost $2,700. To give you a point of reference, installing 120 square feet of granite counter tops is a little over $7,000. The important question we must ask ourselves is how granite countertops have become more ubiquitous than fire sprinklers, especially considering the difference in cost.
In the study, price variation depended on several things:
-Material of piping – copper is more expensive than CPVC or PEX plastic;
-Water supply – on-site (such as well water) or municipal water;
-Local requirements for areas not mandated to receive coverage under NFPA 13D, like garages or attics;
-Sprinkler permit fees can be higher in some localities
The houses used in this study had sprinkler systems built in DURING construction. The cost of retrofitting a house with a sprinkler system is much higher – with estimates as high as $16,000. In 2008 the International Code Council mandated residential sprinklers in all new homes in order to meet minimum safety standards. Since that decision, roughly 4 million single-family homes and duplexes have been built without fire sprinklers. It is safe to say that none of these homes will ever have the protection provided by residential sprinkler systems since retrofitting is cost prohibitive.
Residential Fire Sprinklers are Very Effective
From a human safety perspective, the most important thing is to get people out of their homes quickly during a fire. Once this has been completed, the next goal is to limit the amount of damage to the home from the fire. Residential fire sprinklers are designed to save lives but they have also been proven to reduce direct property damage by up to 70%. Oftentimes families safely escape only to discover that the fire department hasn’t arrived yet, and they are forced to watch in horror as their home burns down. Residential sprinklers are the only fire safety device available for modern homes that automatically help address both the life safety and property damage issues.
Are Residential Fire Sprinklers Reliable? Yes.
Residential fire sprinklers are very reliable. The manufacturing defect rate is 1 in 16,000,000 despite common fears that sprinklers can often go off and cause extensive water damage. To put that in perspective, the chance of getting struck by lightning is 1 in 600,000! Human error is the primary cause of fire sprinkler malfunctions, which we discuss in depth here.
But What About the Environment?
Firefighters on average use 10x more water to suppress house fires that weren’t stymied by residential sprinklers – a home protected by fire sprinklers reduces water usage for fighting the fire by up to 90%. Also, greenhouse gasses released from burning buildings are reduced by 98%.
Smoke does not cause sprinklers to activate. When a sprinkler does activate, only the sprinkler head nearest to the source of heat operates. Yes, all those movies you watched were incorrect when showing every sprinkler activating. 9 out of 10 home fires require activation of just one fire sprinkler for effective suppression.
Will Residential Fire Sprinklers Put Homebuilders out of Business?
Good news homebuilders – residential fire sprinklers will not slow the housing market. As with any cost surrounding new home ownership, the cost of a sprinkler system can be amortized over the lifespan of the mortgage, making them very cost-friendly. Using our example from before: $2,700 amortized over 30 years would add a measly $7.50 to the monthly mortgage payment. Another perk of residential sprinkler systems are the discounts one can receive on insurance premiums. In Illinois, for example, homes partially protected by fire sprinklers can receive up to a 7% discount on insurance premiums, and fully protected homes (e.g., garages, attics, etc. also have sprinklers) can receive a 20% discount.
You also might not know that municipalities offer homebuilder incentives to install sprinklers. Yes, that’s right. More residential units, longer dead-ends, reduced street width, tee turnarounds, and increased hydrant spacing all give the builder chances to increase profit.
So now you have the facts…
We conclude by offering a truce in this heated battle because there is no benefit in fighting fire with fire. It is our opinion that home builders, at a minimum, should offer fire sprinklers to their customers for all new single-family home construction. While individual states must decide whether to mandate sprinklers, offering the option is enough to start a broader discussion about fire safety. If you’re considering building a new home and your home builder is not offering residential fire sprinklers, give us a call – we can walk you through the basics and connect you with a professional in your area to ensure you receive the right options.
This blog originally posted by Jason Hugo at blog.qrfs.com on August 12, 2016. If you like what you’ve read, check us out at Facebook.com/QuickResponseFireSupply or at Twitter @QuickRsponseFS.

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