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Home Fire Sprinklers: A Progress Update
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Home Fire Sprinklers: A Progress Update

By By Jeffrey M. Shapiro, P.E., FSFPE | Fire Protection Engineering

Four years have passed since the January 1, 2011, effective date established by the International Residential Code (IRC) for newly constructed homes to have fire sprinkler systems, and while adoption of this requirement at the state and local level has trailed initial expectations, measurable progress has been and continues to be made. Two states, California and Maryland, plus the District of Columbia and many other jurisdictions have adopted the IRC requirement, and the state of Minnesota recently enacted a statewide adoption applicable to all new homes that are 4,500 square feet or larger in area (including the basement). Progress with townhouses has been even better, with 10 state codes now requiring newly constructed townhouses to have fire sprinklers.

Based on a review of U.S. Census Bureau data, it is reasonable to estimate that the number of newly built homes being equipped with fire sprinklers is now in the 10 percent range, and contrary to dire predictions made by sprinkler opponents, no evidence of an adverse effect on home affordability or the new home construction market has been identified in any state or jurisdiction where sprinkler systems are now required.

In fact, some builders in jurisdictions where fire sprinklers are required even highlight sprinklers as their top safety/security feature in marketing materials, recognizing the fact that sprinklers are a major incentive for purchasing a new home versus an existing unsprinklered home. One builder stated "New homes with fire sprinklers make existing homes obsolete.”

Do buyers really care whether a home has a fire sprinkler system? A recent Harris poll suggests that the answer is increasingly "yes,” with the trend of public opinion clearly moving towards home buyers wanting a home with fire sprinklers. In a May 2014 poll of more than 1,000 U.S. homeowners, which was commissioned by the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition under a federal Fire Prevention & Safety grant, 74 percent of U.S. homeowners said they would be more likely to buy a home with fire sprinklers than one without. That’s nearly double the 38 percent who answered similarly in a poll conducted in 2005.

Another interesting trend, but a disturbing one, that has emerged in recent years is the increasing number of residential fire fatalities occurring in homes with working smoke alarms but lacking sprinklers. National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) data shows that, for the period from 1999 to 2001, 30 percent of fire fatalities occurred in homes with a working smoke alarm. That number increased to 37 percent for 2003 to 2006, and was most recently documented at 40 percent for 2007 to 2011.

Although smoke alarms are an essential life-safety feature, those who argue that smoke alarms alone will protect occupants in a home fire are ignoring the fact that modern construction practices and synthetic furnishings have dramatically reduced safe evacuation times for residential structures. With the window of time between operation of a smoke alarm and the onset of untenable conditions becoming shorter, young, elderly, and impaired occupants who need extra time to successfully evacuate a burning home clearly need the extra protection provided by sprinklers.

The road to all new homes being sprinklered will be a long one, not unlike the experience with smoke alarms. For years, home builders fought smoke alarm mandates. But eventually, opposition subsided, and builders today are perhaps the most vocal advocates for smoke alarms, which have evolved to become a standard feature of a home’s electrical system. As costs drop and consumer demand becomes more evident, builder opposition to sprinklers will likewise eventually fade.

In the meantime, the interim step of adopting the IRC’s townhouse sprinkler requirement is providing a path for progress in jurisdictions with statutes restricting adoption of the IRC and in jurisdictions with insurmountable political obstacles to requiring sprinklers in all new homes. As noted above, 10 state codes now include the townhouse sprinkler requirement, and even among the 16 states where builders successfully lobbied statutes that restrict adoption of the IRC sprinkler requirement, only one state (Florida) restricted adoption of the townhouse provision.

The state of Maryland serves as a good model of how a jurisdiction can evolve from a statewide townhouse sprinkler requirement to all new homes being sprinklered. Maryland began requiring all townhouses to have sprinklers many years ago, followed by some counties enacting ordinances requiring all new homes to be sprinklered. By the time the IRC sprinkler requirement was proposed for statewide adoption, the state already had an infrastructure of installing contractors and material suppliers, and many builders had become experienced and comfortable with incorporating sprinklers into new homes.

It’s important to point out that the debate over whether to require townhouses to be sprinklered is significantly different than the debate related to one- and two-family dwellings. From a safety perspective, townhouses are multifamily structures that include many unrelated individuals and families living under a single roof. The fire safety of every family is reliant on the behavior of others, i.e., one neighbor’s carelessness directly impacts everyone else’s safety, and there have been many incidents where a fire in one townhouse unit had catastrophic consequences on neighbors who had nothing to do with the cause of the fire. Townhouses also place significantly increased demand on emergency responders as compared to detached dwellings because of their size and complexity.

From a financial perspective, the typical (but inaccurate) arguments against sprinklers…impact on affordability, killing the new home construction market, etc…don’t resonate with townhouses because sprinklered townhouses can actually be less expensive to build than non-sprinklered townhouses based on incentives that are offered by the IRC and the International Fire Code (IFC). There’s no better testament to this cost comparison than the fact that the IRC’s townhouse sprinkler requirement was proposed by a major national multifamily builder, Avalon Bay Communities, not the fire service.

Prior to the 2009 edition, the IRC didn’t include an allowance to reduce the fire rating of townhouse separation walls from two-hours to one-hour, which had been permitted by the IBC. Avalon Bay Communities proposed adding the IBC wall reduction to the IRC with the quid pro quo of adding the IBC’s requirement to sprinkler all townhouses. Avalon Bay Communities knew that the savings associated with the reduced wall rating alone typically equaled or exceeded the cost of installing sprinklers. When combined with other incentives offered by the IFC for access roads and water supply, the company knew that they could actually save money by sprinklering townhouses.

Sprinkler advocates need to recognize that supporting an interim legislative step of adopting a townhouse sprinkler requirement in the absence of requiring all new homes to be sprinklered need not be regarded as a failure or as a loss of commitment to the greater goal. Incremental progress is better than no progress at all where full adoption of the IRC requirement isn’t feasible because of statutory or political constraints; isn’t it better for families who would otherwise move into an unsprinklered townhouse to gain the benefits of sprinklers versus no one gaining that benefit?

Our experience with smoke alarms serves as a good guide. Even though we knew that more lives would be saved by providing hardwired, interconnected alarms in common areas and each bedroom, early smoke alarm requirements were satisfied by a single battery-powered unit for an entire household. As technology improved, costs declined, and consumer awareness grew, we eventually achieved the much higher level of safety that we have today.

With the IRC and NFPA codes now requiring fire sprinklers in all new residential occupancies, including one- and two-family homes, many of our children will question why anyone would build an unsprinklered home just as we question today why anyone would want to build a home without smoke alarms. That’s a day that all of us in the fire protection engineering profession should look forward to.

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