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
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:
In the 1980’s, model building codes began requiring sprinklers in some multifamily occupancies,
In 1989, the first edition of NFPA 13R5 was published,
In 2003, the International Building Code (IBC) began requiring all new
hotels, motels and multifamily occupancies to be sprinklered,
In the 2006 edition of the IRC, Appendix P was added to provide optional code text with a requirement to sprinkler homes,
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
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
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
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?
Jeffrey Shapiro is with the International Code Consultants
NFPA 101, Life Safety Code, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA: 2009.
NFPA 5000, Building Construction and Safety Code, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA: 2009.
International Residential Code, International Code Council, Washington: 2009.
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.
NFPA 13R, Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems in
Low-Rise Residential Occupancies, National Fire Protection Association,
Quincy, MA: 1989.
Fabian, T. & Gandhi, P. "Upholstered Furniture Flammability: Material-level and Mock-up Fire Tests," Conference Proceedings of Fire & Materials, pp. 829-839, 2011.
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.
Kerber, S. "Impact of Ventilation on fire Behavior in Legacy and
Contemporary Residential Construction," Underwriters Laboratories Inc.,
Northbrook, IL, 2012.
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.
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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