From Disdain to Advocacy: How I Came to Accept Residential Fire Sprinklers
Residential Fire Sprinklers

At the end of 2008, I responded to a call for volunteers. The assignment: serve the Commonwealth of PA as an engineering representative on the yet-to-be-formed Uniform Construction Code Review and Advisory Council. The primary focus of the group would be to consider the International Code Council’s 2009 edition, providing recommendations for exclusion of any new provisions introduced. At the time, I had no idea what I would be getting into.

Soon after the council was formed, I began to hear about “the big issue” – residential fire sprinklers. Being a structural engineer, this was not something I was particularly concerned with. It seems that I was not the only one; more than once when talking about “residential sprinklers” the person with whom I was speaking thought that I meant lawn sprinklers, not fire sprinklers. I’ll admit, when it was explained to me that one of the new provisions in the 2009 International Residential Code required fire sprinklers in every one- and two-family home, I thought it was ridiculous. It sure seemed like a lot of effort and expense. Was this really necessary? What’s wrong with how we’ve been building homes for decades? Well, I figured, this is a no-brainer. I can’t support a provision that doesn’t make any sense. This must be so narrow an issue that we’ll breeze through it during our review meeting…

So, when the meeting was set with the IRC on the agenda and moved to an auditorium to allow larger public participation, I couldn’t have been more surprised. And then when the room filled, and we listened to nearly six hours of public testimony on just the residential sprinkler issue, I realized just how important these provisions are and how passionate the people are that stand on both sides of the debate. There are plentiful sources on the web for information regarding this issue (reader beware: some sources do not provide entirely factual information), but here are a few highlights:

The Basics

The residential fire sprinkler requirement in the 2009 IRC calls for an NFPA 13D system. This system is limited (no sprinklers in the attic or closets, for example) and is required to support two sprinkler heads at 13 gallons per minute for ten minutes, or for homes under 2000 square feet in size, seven minutes. Water can be supplied either from a private system or from a municipal line. The intention here is to use the sprinkler to keep a fire small, giving the occupants time to leave the house. The systems are not designed with property protection as the primary focus.

Advocates

Residential sprinkler advocates include the US Fire Administration (an entity within FEMA), the National Fire Protection Association, and the International Association of Fire Chiefs. The position of these groups and their supporters is that residential sprinklers, in combination with working interconnected smoke detectors, allow the occupants more time to get out and ultimately save lives. A recent burn study found that some common light-framed wood construction assemblies can reach the point of structural collapse in as little as three minutes.

Aside from the obvious life-safety benefit, sprinklers activate when a fire is relatively small. Potentially, emergency crews can then use less water to contain and control a fire, thereby reducing water and smoke damage in the home.

Opponents

Opponents of code-required residential sprinklers largely appear to consist of homebuilders associations, such as the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) and the Pennsylvania Builders Association. The primary concerns outlined by these groups are the costs of the systems, the potential economic impact to a struggling home-building industry, and the perceived intrusiveness into the personal choices one makes when building a home.

The cost argument is a valid one – anything that you add into a home will increase its cost. Estimates that I have seen range from claims of $0.80/square foot to over $5.00/square foot. But I would argue that even the highest cost estimates for installation of one of these systems (calculation based on a 2500 square-foot home) would result in approximately $60 per month increase on a monthly payment for a 30-year mortgage. If you use the low estimate, it’s a total of $2000. I just am not convinced that numbers in those ranges should prevent an individual who has the means to build a home from actually doing so.

The other argument that I had a difficult time absorbing was the feeling that these provisions are an overreach of the code, an unacceptable intrusion into our freedoms to do as we please in our own homes, on our own property. Are we so willing to resist a change that has been proven to save lives and limit property damage simply for the sake of asserting our autonomy within our own homes? And yet we agree to homeowners association restrictions that regulate the color and quantity of outdoor Christmas lights without batting an eye? I wonder what this attitude says about our society. Again, I don’t disagree with the concept of the argument, but this is the wrong target.

Continuing debate

The sprinkler issue appears to have spurred a larger debate in Pennsylvania about how our Uniform Construction Code is adopted and enforced. The Pennsylvania Builders Association along with various sympathetic members of the General Assembly have supported and/or introduced legislation and legal action not only against the adoption of the sprinkler provisions, but have begun a “Roll Back the Code” campaign in an effort to stop the regular and consistent adoption of the ICC model codes entirely. This becomes a very slippery slope in a state where not so long ago both code officials and builders together worked hard to get a uniform statewide code adopted in the first place.

At the end of the day, I found myself in the opposite position from where I began. I couldn’t not support provisions that are technologically sound and a benefit to life-safety for both home occupants and for the emergency personnel that enter the burning home. I simply wasn’t given a good enough reason to remove it from a national model building code.

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