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Separating Fact From Fiction on Residential Fire Sprinklers

October 27, 2009

Separating Fact From Fiction on Residential Fire Sprinklers

Residential fire sprinkler technology has been around for several decades, yet there has never been a strong market demand for these potential life-saving devices. Almost 30 years ago, the idea of installing a system in the home was first developed, and since then manufacturers have done their best to educate consumers and create new markets. Even with all this educational material on how systems work, when given the choice, homebuyers do not elect to have a residential fire sprinkler installed in their home.

In several parts of this country, and in several Texas cities, local jurisdictions have taken away the homeowners' rights to choose and have enacted ordinances that make it mandatory to install residential sprinklers. There are several concerns that homebuyers and builders have when it comes to residential fire sprinklers and below are just a few of the concerns. The homebuilding industry still firmly believes residential fire sprinklers are a significant expense that should not be forced upon homebuyers.

  • Because of changes in residential construction technology, improved building code requirements – especially for electrical and smoke alarm systems – consumer behavior and the concerted efforts of fire fighters, home builders and other safety advocates, the number of fatal fires has dropped dramatically in the last 20 years. This trend continues, and the decline is even more impressive given the significant population growth in housing stock our nation continues to see.
  • Our population grew 36 percent between 1977 and 2006, according to the U.S. Census, while at the same time, the rate of fires per 1,000 population fell 63 percent from 14.9 in 1977 to 5.5 in 2006.

Even more dramatic is the drop in the actual death rate per million persons from house fires. In fact, from 1979 – 2003, the rate dropped by more than 58 percent, based on data from the Centers for Disease Control. That trend will continue as more new housing stock is constructed and especially as the maintenance of smoke alarms by home occupants is improved. Furthermore, the fire safety features now required in our building codes will adequately protect the home throughout its life without the need for fire sprinklers.

  • Proponents claim that a residential sprinkler system is reliable in 96 -99 percent of the reported structure fires, where the fire was large enough to activate the system. But according to NFPA reports, the number of fires that occur in one-and two-family dwellings equipped with sprinklers are so few, that they are not shown in the studies.
  • Thanks to widespread installation of residential smoke alarm systems in recent years, Americans are safer than they've ever been. A 2006 USFA study on the presence of working smoke alarms in residential fires from 2001 – 2004 showed that 88 percent of the fatal fires in single-family homes occurred where there were no working smoke alarms.
  • Fire sprinkler mandates should remain an option for state and local jurisdictions. The 2006 IRC Appendix-P adequately provides for this option and this approach was overwhelmingly endorsed by the ICC membership where inclusion of the appendix was approved.
  • The IRC requires hard-wired, interconnected smoke alarms to be installed in all bedrooms, outside of them and on each additional story, including basements. When one alarm activates, all other alarms are activated as well. This effective early warning system is the most important way to protect occupants from fire. Over 90 percent of the occupants survived fires that were reported to have occurred in homes equipped with hard-wired, interconnected smoke alarms form 2000 to 2004.
  • Unlike smoke alarms, there is no way to test sprinklers other than applying heat. Occupants must press the test button or use products that simulate smoke to verify that the smoke alarm is properly functioning and ready to alert occupants. Sprinkler manufacturers must rely on test sampling to see if the sprinkler will react to the presence of heat and activate. Defects with the sprinkler will not be known until the sprinkler fails to activate in a fire and reports are issued later for the recall of the defective sprinkler.
  • The fire sprinkler valves must be checked periodically to verify the system is activated. Sprinkler heads must be checked to make sure they are clear of obstacles. Homeowners must be careful not to block them or paint over them. Also, if a backflow prevention device is installed as can be required, an expensive annual inspection may be mandated by the local water purveyor. Standards also specify that sprinkler pipes in the antifreeze-type systems installed in colder climates should be emptied and then refilled with an antifreeze solution every winter, an that monthly inspections and tests of all the water flow devices, pumps, air pressure and water level be performed .
  • The IRC clearly states, "The purpose of this code is to provide minimum requirements to safeguard life or limb, health and public welfare. " The IRC Commentary states that the IRC is intended to provide reasonable minimum standards that reduce the factors of hazardous and substandard conditions that would otherwise put the public at risk to damaging their health, safety or welfare. Any imposition of a mandated sprinkler requirement is excessive and is not a reasonable minimum standard for meeting the "purpose" of the code.

Source: Texas Builder Magazine March/April 2009 edition