From todayÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s WSJ…
Mandating Fire Sprinklers for the Home
Alberta Davidson woke up at 5 a.m. one morning last March to a blaring alarm. Her garage was on fire.
But it wasn’t her smoke detector that had gone off. Rather, the alarm was notifying her that the fire sprinklers in her garage had activated. The sprinklers helped keep the fire from spreading to the interior of her house in Fallbrook, Calif., where sprinklers are mandatory in new homes.
“Fire sprinklers really saved my home and saved my life,” says Ms. Davidson, 48. “Prior to the incident, we took them for granted.”
As concern over residential fire deaths grows, home sprinklers are becoming more widespread and could soon be mandatory in new homes across the country. As early as this weekend, the International Code Council, which sets the residential building code used in 46 states either at the state or local level, will vote on code changes that would make sprinklers mandatory in new one-family and two-family homes. Meanwhile, a growing number of communities in states ranging from California to Maryland are already requiring sprinklers in new homes and, in some cases, in homes that undergo significant enlargements.
The Residential Fire Safety Institute, a Maple Grove, Minn.-based nonprofit that promotes fire safety, says it has a record of 400 counties and cities that have passed ordinances requiring sprinklers. Eight years ago, that number was only 200, says Roy Marshall, the organization’s director. He adds that “most of the movement has happened in the last two or three years.”
Supporters of mandatory sprinklers say they help extend the amount of time residents have to get out of the house during a fire by preventing flashover, which occurs when the temperature in a room reaches a point where all combustible materials burst into flames. In many cases, they put out smaller house fires altogether, says Gary Keith, vice president of field operations at the Quincy, Mass.-based National Fire Protection Association, a nonprofit that sets recommended fire-safety standards.
That has spurred cities like University Park, Texas, where homes are generally two stories and built in close proximity to each other, to take action. The City Council there passed an ordinance last January, requiring sprinklers in new homes and homes that are 3,000 square feet that undergo an addition of 1,000 square feet or more. Mayor James H. Holmes III says that in University Park, sprinkler installation costs $10,000 to $15,000 for most homes.
Many communities are also making sprinklers mandatory because of budget reasons, says Lawrence McKenna, fire program specialist at the Washington-based U.S. Fire Administration. Fewer people are volunteering to be firefighters these days. Many cities and counties are finding that, by requiring sprinklers, they can avoid expanding their fire departments or building costly new fire stations.
But the idea of requiring sprinklers in single-family homes nationwide has drawn heated opposition from builders, who say that sprinklers increase costs and require some maintenance by the homeowner. “While NAHB is not against residential sprinklers as an option for home owners, there is not enough evidence in making these mandatory,” says Steve Orlowski, program manager at the National Association of Home Builders in Washington.
Supporters of sprinkler ordinances point to a study by Scottsdale, Ariz., which made sprinklers mandatory in 1985. Fifteen years later, the average fire loss per single-family home with sprinklers was only $2,166, compared with an average loss of $45,019 in single-family homes without them. In single-family homes, one or two sprinkler heads controlled or extinguished fires 88% of the time.
Fire-safety officials and local officials in jurisdictions where sprinklers are mandatory are quick to dispel myths about sprinklers. One popular misconception is that when one sprinkler goes off, they all do. “What folks don’t understand is that these sprinkler systems that are installed in today’s homes only go off where the heat activates them,” says Mayor Holmes of University Park. Also, having sprinklers doesn’t have to mar your decor. Many models of sprinklers are designed to blend in with your ceiling.
Sprinklers are usually installed in all occupied spaces, including bedrooms, kitchens, living rooms and large bathrooms. One sprinkler is designed to cover about 400 square feet, says NFPA’s Mr. Keith, who is also chairman of the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition, a nonprofit that promotes fire-sprinkler education.
Sprinklers rarely go off by accident, Mr. Keith says. They are not activated by smoke — so if you burn something in the kitchen but see smoke and no flames, the sprinklers won’t go off. To turn off the sprinklers, you have to either turn off the sprinkler control valve or the main water supply in your home.
Residents who have been through house fires say, though, that they were shocked by the amount of water that filled their homes when their sprinkler systems activated. (A typical sprinkler emits 15 to 20 gallons of water per minute.) “It was like a hurricane,” says James Bond, 36, a project manager at a remodeling company who had a house fire last New Year’s Eve. A candle that was lit for an earlier party melted and caught the back of his couch on fire.
The sprinkler helped to contain the fire so that Mr. Bond’s guests could lift the couch and throw it outside. The house had $25,000 worth of water damage, but “I’d rather have that type of damage than have the house catch on fire,” says Mr. Bond, of Clarksburg, Md.
Another concern for homeowners and builders is the cost of installing a sprinkler, which can vary depending on the community. According to a study of 10 communities in the U.S. and Canada released last week by the Fire Protection Research Foundation in Quincy, Mass., the average cost of sprinkler systems is $1.61 per square foot of space to be covered by the system.
Beyond the initial cost, fire-safety officials and sprinkler manufacturers say maintenance is simple. In most cases, homeowners should turn on the water-flow test valve on the sprinkler system and make sure it is working once a year, says NFPA’s Mr. Keith. Typically, there is a discharge point at the end of the system where the water should flow outside. They should also visually check the sprinkler heads to make sure nothing is obstructing them. Sprinklers are designed to last decades, but NFPA recommends having your sprinklers inspected by a contractor after 20 years.
There are cases where extra costs and maintenance are involved for homeowners. For instance, homeowners who receive their water from private wells in most cases have to purchase an additional pump and tank — which can cost a couple of thousand dollars — that holds water to be dispensed through the sprinkler system. And some communities require homeowners to have backflow preventers — which keep water used by the sprinkler system from mixing with the rest of the water supply in your home. These devices cost about $80 to $100, says William Barnard, Maryland State Fire Marshall. And water utilities may require homeowners to have the backflow preventers inspected once a year for a fee of about $50, he says.
There is a financial benefit to sprinklers, too: Homeowners who have them can in most cases get a discount on homeowners insurance. According to the Fire Protection Research Foundation’s study, insurers give an average premium discount of 7%.
Sandi Stump, 54, an insurance saleswoman from Darnestown, Md., got a 5% discount on her annual premium from her insurance provider when she moved into a new home with sprinklers in 2004. While the cost saving wasn’t huge, she says it was a nice perk.
Insurers also generally cover any water damage resulting from sprinklers going off during a fire. In 2006, Ms. Stump came home to a house fire that resulted in about $200,000 worth of damage — mostly from water. Her insurance company covered the cost.