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Issue 62: Home Fire Sprinklers
A Perspective on Progress Towards Fire Safe Housing

By Jeffrey M. Shapiro, P.E., FSFPE

On January 1, 2011, all U.S. model codes regulating residential building construction began requiring fire sprinklers in newly constructed homes. NFPA added this requirement in their 2006 codes,1,2 and the 2009 edition of the International Residential Code (IRC)3 added it with a 2011 trigger.

Nevertheless, only the states of California and Maryland have enacted the requirement to date. Others, including Pennsylvania, South Carolina and New Jersey came close but were ultimately unsuccessful, at least for the time being. The underlying events have been an interesting lesson in the politics of public safety.

As background, the requirement for homes to be sprinklered didn’t just appear out of nowhere when it was added to the IRC. The discussion related to this issue began in earnest roughly four decades ago when work began on the first edition of NFPA 13D.4 In the years that followed:

  1. In the 1980’s, model building codes began requiring sprinklers in some multifamily occupancies,
  2. In 1989, the first edition of NFPA 13R5 was published,
  3. In 2003, the International Building Code (IBC) began requiring all new hotels, motels and multifamily occupancies to be sprinklered,
  4. In the 2006 edition of the IRC, Appendix P was added to provide optional code text with a requirement to sprinkler homes,
  5. In 2007, a majority of voting members present at the International Code Council (ICC) annual conference supported moving the home fire sprinkler requirement from Appendix P to the body of the IRC, but the vote came up short of the 2/3 super majority that was required for approval,
  6. In 2008, the voting members in attendance at ICC’s annual conference voted by an overwhelming majority to include a requirement in the 2009 edition of the IRC for all new homes to be equipped with fire sprinklers, with a 2011 effective date, and
  7. In 2009, ICC members reaffirmed the requirement, retaining it for the 2012 edition of the IRC.

The primary opposition to requiring sprinklers in new homes has always come from the home building industry. Not all home builders oppose fire sprinklers. On the contrary, there are a number of builders who have recognized the value of sprinklers as a marketing advantage to encourage buyers to purchase a new home instead of a resale property that does not have this state-of-the-art fire safety feature.

When home builders’ associations found that they were unable to prevail in the model code arena, they took their arguments to state legislatures to employ a technique known as legislative preemption. This is where a legislature passes a law that prevents a subordinate level of government from taking a particular action. In this case, state legislatures were asked to pass laws that would preempt state agencies and/or local levels of government from adopting the IRC fire sprinkler requirement. Over the objections of public safety advocates and organizations that favor local control of local government affairs, many state legislatures succumbed to pressure from the home building industry, which claimed that 1) Residential sprinkler mandates would adversely affect a recovery in home construction and associated job creation and economic growth, and 2) Sprinkler mandates are unnecessary because smoke alarms provide an adequate level of home fire safety.

With regard to the issue of an adverse effect on the housing recovery, home prices are more closely tied to market conditions than the cost of construction. Furthermore, with all homes constructed in California and most homes constructed in Maryland now equipped with fire sprinklers, no one has come forward with any evidence to suggest that the housing recovery in these states had been adversely impacted by sprinklers. If such evidence existed, home builders’ associations would present it as proof to support their case.

With regard to reliance on smoke alarms, extensive research conducted by UL as part of a FEMA-funded grant program has documented a variety of safety concerns with new home construction that impact smoke alarms’ ability to provide early warning for safe egress, particularly for young, aging and physically or mentally challenged occupants. These concerns include the increased hazard of synthetic materials used in modern furnishings,6 rapid failure of lightweight and engineered structural members when exposed to fire,7 and ventilation-limited fires that occur in tightly-constructed, energy efficient homes.8 Smoke alarms remain an essential part of residential fire safety, but the concerns demonstrated by UL testing point to sprinklers in combination with smoke alarms as a more appropriate firesafety package for new homes, much more so than may have been the case the way homes were built and furnished 40+ years ago.

For now, it appears that the issue of IRC adoptions that include the home fire sprinkler requirement has reached a temporary equilibrium. Sprinkler advocates will continue working to overcome challenges, home builders’ associations will continue to impede mandates, and homes will continue to be built in California and Maryland, establishing a track record that may ultimately help legislators and regulators in other states to separate myth and speculation from reality. Other states and local jurisdictions which have successfully adopted the IRC fire sprinkler requirement for townhouses (townhouses have typically not been affected by legislative preemptions) will also help to build a track record.

Lurking in the background will be the issue of liability. With all model codes now requiring home fire sprinklers as a minimum requirement for constructing a safe home, designers and engineers who fail to specify sprinklers and builders who choose to omit them, regardless of the lack of code mandates, take on a liability exposure for failure to meet a well-established "standard of care.” An article9 provides some insight into this issue. Imagine an unsprinklered home built in 2012 that experiences a fire and fatalities occur. In an ensuing lawsuit, the builder is accused of negligence for failing to install sprinklers to protect the family. The builder will claim that the local code didn’t require sprinklers, and the builder met that code. However, the builder will have a difficult time denying an awareness of the availability of sprinklers or the effectiveness of sprinklers in suppressing fires. The standard of care established by every U.S. model code governing residential construction calls for sprinklers to have been installed. Will the jury find liability?

For more information on home fire sprinklers, visit

Jeffrey Shapiro is with the International Code Consultants

  1. NFPA 101, Life Safety Code, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA: 2009.
  2. NFPA 5000, Building Construction and Safety Code, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA: 2009.
  3. International Residential Code, International Code Council, Washington: 2009.
  4. NFPA 13D, Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems in One- and Two-Family Dwellings and Manufactured Homes, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA: 1975.
  5. NFPA 13R, Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems in Low-Rise Residential Occupancies, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA: 1989.
  6. Fabian, T. & Gandhi, P. "Upholstered Furniture Flammability: Material-level and Mock-up Fire Tests," Conference Proceedings of Fire & Materials, pp. 829-839, 2011.
  7. Izydorek, M., et al. "Report on Structural Stability of Engineered Lumber in Fire Conditions," Project Number: 07CA42520, File Number: NC9140, Underwriters Laboratories Inc., Northbrook, IL, 2008.
  8. Kerber, S. "Impact of Ventilation on fire Behavior in Legacy and Contemporary Residential Construction," Underwriters Laboratories Inc., Northbrook, IL, 2012.
  9. Frattaroli, S., Teret,, S. & Rutkow, J. " "Residential Sprinkler Systems: Consideration of Policy and Litigation Strategies for Reducing Residential Fire Injuries." Network for Public Health Law, William Mitchell College of Law, St. Paul, MN, 2011.

Related Articles:

2nd Quarter 2012 - Challenges for the Fire Sprinkler Industry -- Kenneth E. Isman, P.E., FSFPE
There are a number of challenges that face people in the fire sprinkler industry. Many of these challenges are associated with the design of fire sprinkler systems. However, there are other important challenges facing the sprinkler industry that are of interest to fire protection engineers, but could not be classified as "design" issues. This article outlines challenges in the design, standards, specifications, maintenance and education arenas and will suggest methods of dealing with these challenges. READ MORE

Spring 2005 - The Economics of Automatic Fire Sprinklers – Stacy N. Welch, P.E.
Codes used today require automatic fire sprinklers in many occupancies. However, there are many new and existing buildings that are exempt. The benefits of sprinkler systems are widely known and documented, so why are they not used in more buildings? The NFPA states that nearly 80 percent of fire deaths occur in residential properties, the overwhelming majority of which are not required to be sprinklered. The sad fact is that these deaths occur not because the technology to provide protection is not available, but because as stated in the Fire Sprinkler Incentive Act of 2003, "the major hurdle to be overcome to reach the next step of fire safety is that of economics." There are many aspects associated with the economics of fire sprinklers. Some of them are easy to define, such as the cost of design, materials, and labor. Then there are the more subjective components that should impact the decisionmaking process, such as the value of lives saved by a sprinkler system or the reduction in injuries to both occupants and firefighters. Sprinklers also lessen the severity of fires, reducing damage to property and diminishing the strain on the fire service and community resources. A full understanding of all of these aspects is critical to the more widespread use of fire sprinklers. READ MORE

Winter 2005 - What Have We Learned About the Benefits and Costs of Residential Fire Sprinkler Legislation? -- Chris Jelenewicz, P.E.
Since the first residential sprinkler standard (NFPA 13D) was published by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) in 1975 and the first residential sprinkler ordinance was implemented in San Clemente, California, in 1980,1 the number of households that are now protected with automatic sprinklers has slowly increased. Although these systems have been shown to be extremely effective in protecting lives from the consequences of residential fires, very few jurisdictions have implemented ordinances that require sprinklers in new homes. Some believe the general public as well as some fire service professionals do not fully understand the potential benefits and costs associated with these systems. Fortunately, several communities that have adopted home sprinkler legislation have made attempts to quantify performance. To help provide a better understanding on the value of residential sprinkler system legislation, this article will provide a brief summary on some of the literature that has attempted to define the benefits and/or costs of requiring sprinklers in the home. Additionally, this article will briefly discuss how fire protection engineers are currently working to make these systems more cost-effective. READ MORE

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