Fire Sprinklers: Coming to a Home Near You
With a smoking record for saving lives and protecting houses, it’s no surprise sprinklers were adopted into the International Residential Code.
Synopsis: Fire sprinklers are usually thought of in retail and office contexts. However, their proven life- and property-saving abilities have led to their inclusion in the International Residential Code, effective in 2011. In this article, associate editor Chris Ermides looks at the positive impact of residential fire sprinkler systems in communities where they’ve been mandated. He also examines the way fire sprinkler heads work, the two options for sprinkler systems (one integrated with the house’s plumbing and one strictly dedicated to putting out fires), and the cost of a fire sprinkler system as part of the construction of a new home (a little less than 2% of the overall construction cost).
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While photographing an article with an electrician a couple of years ago, I got a tour of his new home. It was well built and, of course, had a vast array of high-tech gadgets. But what caught my attention most was the set of valves and gauges that shot from the home’s main water-supply line. “Is that for your radiant-floor heat?” I asked, pointing to the pressure gauge, the backflow switch, and a couple of shutoffs. He grinned and said, “Sprinkler system.” He’s a man of few words, but he’s also a full-time firefighter. I knew that he wasn’t talking about sprinklers that water the lawn.
He then told me that smoke alarms reduce the risk of dying in a fire by only 50%. Smoke alarms and fire sprinklers combined, however, lower the risk by 82%. Given those numbers, adding 1.5% to the construction cost of his home felt like a worthy investment.
Apparently, a lot of other people think so, too, because the International Code Council, the governing body responsible for the International Residential Code (IRC), approved a proposal to require fire sprinklers in all new homes. The requirement appears in the 2009 IRC, but it won’t take effect until Jan. 1, 2011. This new code won’t be adopted automatically by the 48 states that follow the IRC, however. Each state and local building department responsible for code changes will have the final say. Many areas already have residential sprinkler codes on the books, though, and some have had them in place for decades.
Sprinklers save lives and houses
According to the U.S. Fire Administration, a house fire starts about every 80 seconds in this country. In the 414,000 fires that occurred in 2007, nearly 3000 people lost their lives, and 14,000 were injured. Besides the casualties, $7.5 billion went up in flames.
In Scottsdale, Ariz., home fire sprinklers have been mandatory since 1986. More than 50% of the houses there (about 41,000) are now protected by sprinklers. According to a 20-year study known as the Scottsdale Report, the Rural/Metro Fire Department found that of the 598 house fires that occurred, there were no fatalities in the 49 homes equipped with fire sprinklers. In the houses that weren’t protected, 13 people died. The average fire loss in homes with sprinklers was $2166, compared with $45,019 in homes without them.
States including Illinois, Maryland, and Oregon have also had residential fire-sprinkler codes on the books for years. Whether municipalities are going to adopt the new rule is still unclear, and very much up for debate. The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) is working to convince states that they should block municipalities from adopting the new code; so far, 10 states have legislation in the works to do just that. The NAHB fears the added cost of sprinklers will deter people from building a home.
“Local adoptions have been growing around the country, including areas served by volunteer fire departments,” says Darren Palmieri, product manager for Tyco Fire Suppression and Building Products. Sprinkler systems can lessen the strain on municipal fire protection services, which can help in areas with dwindling volunteer rates.
Although sprinkler systems aren’t meant to replace firefighters, their purpose is to save lives. Most fire-related deaths in a house happen within five to 10 minutes of ignition. This critical point is called flashover, when all combustible materials within a room simultaneously ignite. No one survives flashover. Sprinklers control the fire enough to delay flashover. They buy time for the home’s occupants and for the fire department.
For more photos and information about fire production, click the View PDF button below.