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Posted March 7, 2009 | Copyright © The Northern Virginia Daily
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Residential sprinkler requirement ignites debate

By James Heffernan -- Daily Staff Writer

A proposal that would require all new residences to be equipped with fire sprinklers doesn't hold water with builders, who claim the systems are unnecessary and would only increase the purchase price of a home at a pivotal time for the industry.

In September, the International Code Council voted overwhelmingly to approve the change to the International Residential Code, which governs construction of one- and two-family dwellings and townhouses in 48 states and the District of Columbia, including Virginia.

The change would exclude remodeling and additions to existing homes.

"Although there is still work to do, this precedent-setting vote will change the face of fire safety in America," said Larry J. Grorud, president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, one of the public-safety organizations that has long pushed for the change. "The fire service has won a major victory in the fight to make our citizens' homes safer."

The code change, which wouldn't take effect until 2011, is subject to adoption by state and local jurisdictions.

In Virginia, the Board of Housing and Community Development, which has the final say on changes to the Statewide Uniform Building Code, isn't wasting any time in tackling the issue.

Recent appointee Lori Fountain, president of Fountain Homes in Winchester, said the panel will make a decision in the next two to three months.

"We can adopt all of it, some of it or none of it," she said of the ICC's 2009 International Residential Code.

The board will ultimately weigh the additional costs involved in installing the systems against their safety benefits, she said.

Homebuilder associations, which have been busy lobbying regulators to exclude the residential sprinkler requirement, say the systems will add anywhere from $5,000 to $15,000 to the cost of a new home.

"One of our main objections is that it will raise the price of a house at a time when you don't want to be doing that," said Dale White, a local builder who serves as president of the Top of Virginia Building Association.

And those figures don't include the structural costs to accommodate the systems, he said. "The trusses would have to be redesigned to carry water pipes."

Fire sprinkler systems are required in the U.S. in public buildings and some commercial structures, as well as in places with overnight sleeping accommodations such as hotels, nursing homes, dormitories and hospitals, to protect against the loss of life and property.

John Smith, with Ferguson Bath Kitchen & Lighting Gallery in Winchester, said the Newport News-based parent company, which sells residential sprinkler systems through its Fire and Fabrication division, currently doesn't get a lot of requests for them. But as time goes on and prices get more competitive, he said, "it will be a viable issue for us."

Most of the systems right now are plastic, he said, but composite pipes that incorporate an aluminum welding tube are gaining steam.

As a part-time firefighter with Rivermont Volunteer Fire Company in Warren County, Smith said he has seen firsthand the benefits of sprinkler systems.

"It's coming," he said of the residential requirement, "and we'll all be better off for it."

But builders disagree.

Christian Schweiger, executive director of the TVBA, said the proposed code change amounts to "overkill" on the part of fire marshals and manufacturers of sprinkler systems.

"It's always an option [for homeowners]," he said. "If you want it in your home, there's someone out there who will sell it to you and install it. ... But we don't need to be requiring it. You'll be pricing some people out of the market, and that's the last thing we need to do right now."

Homebuilders say smoke alarms are sufficient protection against residential fires. However, fire officials point out that the alarms, while serving an important alert function, don't stop the spread of the blaze.

Fire officials also claim that sprinkler systems will cause homeowner insurance rates to go down, but Fountain said one of the issues the state housing board will be looking at is failure rates.

"Our question is, what happens when these sprinkler systems go off accidentally and ruin hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of property?" she asked. "Will homeowners be denied coverage after that? If you have enough accidents, I can't imagine [insurance rates] would go down."

"These systems, they do malfunction," White said, adding that something as simple as the steam from a pot cooking on the stove or cigarette smoke can act as triggers.

In addition, new construction homes seldom catch on fire, he said.

"It's mostly the older homes, and there's no way to retrofit those [with sprinkler systems]."

Contact James Heffernan at jheffernan@nvdaily.com

1 Comment | Leave a comment

    As a Professional Fire Educator I hear the same arguments all the time about home fires and sprinklers, so let’s change areas of ignorance into knowledge. Many statements in this article are common misconceptions. I will address a few:” steam from a pot cooking on the stove or cigarette smoke can act as triggers”. The ceiling temperatures must maintain at least around 165 degrees plus (depending on the temperature rating of the head) in order for the sprinkler to engage. In a fire the temperatures from 6ft to the ceiling will reach 175-200 degrees in a room in 35-40 seconds. Steam and heat from a pot will dissipate before reaching the ceiling height, and there isn’t enough ambient heat from a cigarette in your hand to heat anything a few inches away much less a sprinkler head at the ceiling. (If you stick the cigarette in the sprinkler head that’s a different story)

    Another myth: “new construction homes seldom catch on fire” New homes burn! Electrical fires caused by faulty wiring are a very small percentage of fires. The leading causes of fires and fire death: smoking material (cigarettes, lighters, matches), Cooking (not the steam, but grease and other stove top fires), Heating (Heater elements to close to combustibles), and Candles. The fire rates in new homes are the same as older homes simply because most fires are caused by human error. New homes today are more often built with synthetic materials that burn faster and while burning give off more toxins than the material in older homes, causing more inhalation deaths and faster fires.
    Failure rates; “sprinkler systems go off accidentally and ruin hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of property?" Home sprinklers don’t work like sprinklers in the movies. If the system engages only one or two heads will be operating. As for failure rates 1 in 17 million sprinkler heads will fail.

    Cost: For many the issue really does come down to money. Home Sprinklers will cost less per square foot than most floor coverings. In a housing development the trade offs (narrower streets, further hydrant spacing, and higher housing density) pay higher dividends to the builder and more than offset the cost of home sprinkler installation. Plus you get the added marketing advantage of a safer home for a family which translates into more homes sold. Many builders will gladly install a yard sprinkler system to make your grass green than install a home sprinkler system that will save your life at about the same price. Plus with a home sprinkler system you will save money on your homeowners insurance. Even in an older home retro-fitting is simple for a contractor or homeowner (depending on your states requirements for installation) who has basic home construction and plumbing skills.

    So thanks for your time, be safe and remember ultimately “Home Sprinklers Save Lives!”

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