- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 27, 2006

More than 4,000 people die in fires each year, the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition reports, and 80 percent of all deaths caused by fire occur in a residence.

Statistics like these have prompted the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA; www.nfpa.org) to revise its Life Safety Code to include a requirement that all new single-family homes constructed in the United States include an automatic fire sprinkler system.

Individual jurisdictions decide whether they will adopt the revised Life Safety Code.

In the Washington metropolitan area, most jurisdictions already have adopted a code that requires new single-family homes, apartments, condominiums and town houses to include automatic sprinkler systems. Some locations also require that sprinkler systems be installed in additions or major remodeling projects.

Homeowners should investigate these requirements when obtaining permits for their projects.

Gary Keith, NFPA vice president of regional operations, says that although the NFPA does not have an exact count of how many jurisdictions have adopted the policy, hundreds have taken this step.

No state has adopted the sprinkler code as yet, but Maryland comes closest, Mr. Keith says, because almost all its counties have made sprinkler systems mandatory in homes.

“This is a significant change in our 2006 national model codes, the first time that sprinkler systems have been required for one- and two-family homes,” Mr. Keith says.

“This proposal has surfaced many times before but never made it through the whole review process,” he says. “We adopted it this time as a way of trying to get off a plateau in terms of fire safety. Admittedly, there has been a significant reduction in the number of deaths due to fire over the past 25 years, due to public education and the widespread use of smoke alarms. But we are trying to drive the number down further by increasing awareness of the value of home sprinkler systems.”

Mr. Keith points to the irony that building codes have addressed the need for sprinkler protection systems in multifamily homes, commercial buildings and public assembly buildings for decades but that those codes have not dealt with the one level of occupancy where most people are lost because fire: single-family homes.

The District’s building code was changed in January 2004 to require that group homes have automatic sprinkler systems, according to Lt. Tony Falwell of the city fire department’s Fire Prevention Division.

In June 2005, the mandate was expanded to all new homes.

“The focus initially was on certain residences because of the makeup of their occupants,” Lt. Falwell says. “Automatic sprinkler systems can provide an added lifestyle protection, especially in homes occupied by mentally challenged individuals or those who are physically disabled. Sprinklers offer an early intervention. The faster you can get water on a fire, the greater the chances are of survival and of limiting property loss.”

Prince George’s County enacted a code requirement for automatic sprinkler systems in town homes on Dec. 31, 1988, and then extended the requirement to single-family homes on Jan. 1, 1992, says Tom Matzen, the county’s acting deputy director of the Department of Environmental Resources.

“Maryland also adopted a smoke detector requirement for homes in 1990,” Mr. Matzen says, “but smoke detectors work simply by alerting people to the presence of smoke. Sprinkler systems are only set off by heat.”

Mr. Matzen explains the difference.

“Smoke compromises the ability of people to egress from a home with a fire, so the smoke detector provides early detection,” he says. “You need to make sure everyone is out safely and the fire department is on the way as the first steps in fire safety. A sprinkler system provides the next step, putting out the fire or at least preventing the spread of a fire.”

Mr. Matzen says sprinkler systems work best if the fire originates in a specific area. Sprinkler systems are very sensitive and are activated only by heat.

Although homeowners can be irritated sometimes by smoke detectors that sound an alarm when a smoky steak is being cooked or by too-close proximity to a steamy shower, sprinkler systems are less easily activated. Contrary to the views of sprinkler systems seen on television and in films, automatic sprinkler systems do not all turn on at the same time if one nozzle is activated by heat.

“It is a misconception that all the sprinklers go off at once,” Mr. Keith says. “Only the affected head goes off, so the water damage is limited to that one area. The amount of water used by the sprinkler system to control the fire is much less compared to what the fire department brings in to control a fire. And, of course, no one thinks about the water damage compared with the consequences of an uncontrolled fire.”

Chances that a sprinkler will accidentally discharge because of a manufacturing defect are extremely rare, approximately 1 in 16 million, according to the Web site for Tyco Fire and Building Products (www.tyco-rapidresponse.com). Tyco manufactures the Rapid Response Home Fire Sprinkler System, designed specifically for homes.

Sprinkler accidents generally are less likely and less severe than accidents involving home plumbing systems.

Mr. Matzen says, “When we started requiring the sprinkler systems, there was a lot of concern about the heads being knocked off or accidentally going off, but we have had very few problems with them. There have been a few problems with the pipes freezing if they are near an outside wall, but generally, this can be resolved with insulation.”

The Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition (www.homefiresprinkler.org) reports that 90 percent of fires are contained by the operation of just one sprinkler. Tyco officials say fire and water damage are reduced by 95 percent with the use of an automatic sprinkler system.

A 2005 study commissioned by the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition revealed that 69 percent of homeowners believe having a fire sprinkler system increases the value of a home, and 38 percent say they would be more likely to purchase a home with sprinklers than one without a sprinkler system.

Only a very small percentage of homes in the United States have sprinkler systems in place. Mr. Keith estimates that perhaps just 2 percent to 4 percent of new homes have sprinkler systems.

The Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition says sprinkler systems installed during new construction cost approximately 1 percent to 11/2 percent of the total building cost of the home. The systems are designed to last 20 years or longer.

Many large homeowner insurance companies offer a discount to homeowners who install a sprinkler system or buy a home with one in place. Estimates of the savings vary from 5 percent to as much as 15 percent of the premium.

State Farm Insurance joined the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition’s Steering Committee in October 2005 and offers discounts of 5 percent to 10 percent to its customers whose homes have sprinkler systems.

Although smoke detectors require a yearly test and battery change, sprinkler systems require a once-per-year flow-valve check to be sure the water is flowing properly.

Mr. Keith says some systems include an alarm that alerts homeowners to a problem with the sprinkler system. Other systems tie in the sprinkler system with other plumbing pipes so that homeowners know the sprinklers work as long as their other plumbing works.

In places where automatic sprinkler systems have been required for many years, research has been conducted to evaluate their effectiveness.

In Scottsdale, Ariz., researchers collected data in 2001, 15 years after new homes in that community were required to include sprinkler systems.

As of 2001, more than 50 percent of the homes in Scottsdale were protected with fire sprinkler systems. The average fire loss between 1986 and 2001 for homes with sprinklers was $2,166, compared to $45,019 in homes without sprinklers. In addition, although no one died in a fire in a home with a sprinkler system, 13 people died in homes without a sprinkler system during those 15 years.

Additionally, the local fire department says 13 lives were saved by sprinkler systems and an estimated $20 million in property damage was prevented in the homes with sprinklers.

A Prince George’s County study involving 12 years of data following the residential sprinkler mandate found that five persons were injured in fires in town homes and single-family homes with sprinkler systems, with no deaths. In town homes and single-family homes without sprinkler systems, nine persons were injured and 12 persons died.

The difference in property loss also was significant. The average fire loss in a home with a sprinkler system was estimated at $3,300, and the average loss in a home without a sprinkler system was estimated at $80,000.

Statistics such as these may spark interest among homeowners in having a sprinkler system retrofitted into their existing homes. This is not required in any jurisdiction and is not a do-it-yourself project, Mr. Keith says, but hiring a licensed contractor to retrofit a home with a sprinkler system is possible.

In fact, Mr. Keith did this in his own home recently.

“It was actually fairly painless,” Mr. Keith says. “I had sprinklers installed only in occupied spaces such as living areas and the basement, not places like closets or bathrooms. Most rooms only required one sprinkler. The piping is not that different from other piping in the house, so it was possible to retrofit the sprinklers with the existing piping.”

New home buyers should make certain that their builder is installing an automatic sprinkler system, and homeowners building an addition or undertaking a major remodeling project may want to search for a licensed sprinkler-system contractor by visiting Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition Web site (www.homefiresprinkler.org), which has links to the American Fire Sprinkler Association and the National Fire Sprinkler Association Web sites. These organizations offer assistance in locating a contractor.

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