Fire Sprinklers: Codes, Costs and Construction Issues

Years ago, residential fire sprinklers were not even a thought in most home builders’ minds. But now, more than 40 years after the first residential fire sprinkler ordinances were passed in San Clemente and Corte Madera, Calif., fire sprinklers are gaining ground in municipalities and developments across the country.

Having long been known as a state with progressive legislation, California remains the leader in residential fire sprinkler protection with nearly 150 local jurisdictions that have ordinances. In addition, California was one of the first states to pass the 2009 International Residential Code, which includes fire sprinklers. Other states include Maryland, Pennsylvania and South Carolina.

In a recent effort to increase home fire safety, the International Code Council adopted home fire sprinkler requirements for its 2009 and 2012 versions of the International Residential Code. The 2009 IRC will require new one- and two-family homes and townhomes be equipped with fire sprinklers beginning Jan. 1, 2011.

According to Maria Figueroa, regional manager for the National Fire Protection Association’s Fire Prevention Field Office, the 2009 IRC should not come as too much of a surprise to anyone as it is not the first national model code to require fire sprinklers in new home construction. “NFPA 101 Life Safety Code, NFPA 1 Uniform Fire Code, and NFPA 5000 Building Construction and Safety Code have required fire sprinklers since the 2006 editions,” Figueroa says. “All national codes now contain the requirement.”

The IRC will affect only those state and local jurisdictions that have chosen to adopt the 2009 version. Many local jurisdictions are currently enforcing versions of the IRC that are four to five years old, and they may vote to update codes every few years.

“Although a residential fire sprinkler ordinance might not immediately occur locally, the ‘gold standard’ has been set and it’s time for the home building industry to accept home fire sprinkler technology and embrace the code for the life safety, property conservation and environmental benefits it provides,” Figueroa says.

Researching how fire sprinklers can have a positive impact on their business models home builders can begin to structure their businesses accordingly and form partnerships with licensed fire sprinkler contractors.

Cost Assessment

Cost is almost always a concern with fire sprinklers. Home builders Bill and Janet Hall, Pleasant View, Tenn., were no different than most, thinking fire sprinklers were too expensive of an option in the homes they build. This changed when they were first required to install fire sprinklers in an entire development.

“At first we were concerned about the added costs and what they would look like,” Bill Hall says. “But once the development was complete, the fire sprinkler systems increased the values of the homes and our buyers’ insurance rates were lower. The sprinklers are concealed, so you don’t really notice them.

In “Home Fire Sprinkler Cost Assessment,” a 2008 report from the Fire Protection Research Foundation, which is an affiliate of NFPA, the cost of installing fire sprinkler systems to the home builder averaged only $1.61 per “sprinklered” square foot. The figure includes all costs associated with the sprinkler system including the design, installation and other costs such as permits, additional equipment, increased tap and water meter fees — to the extent that they apply.

“Home builders can use this study to evaluate costs in their geographical area to obtain competitive quotes from home fire sprinkler contractors,” suggests NFPA’s Figueroa.

Another NFPA report from 2009, “The Comparative Analysis of Housing Cost and Supply Impacts of Sprinkler Ordinances at the Community Level,” reveals no impact to housing supply or costs in communities with fire sprinkler mandates such as the 2009 IRC.

“This report will help allay an ongoing fear of home builders that they will lose their competitive edge if their communities require homes fire sprinklers, and a neighboring community does not,” Figueroa says. “NFPA will continue to identify real or perceived impacts on the home building industry and will work to try to minimize them.”

The cost of installing fire sprinklers in homes is best compared with the costs of other add-ons home builders feature such as granite countertops, cabinet upgrades or hardwood floors, which often are fairly equal. When put in terms of having the choice to either make cosmetic upgrades or installing a life-safety fire sprinkler system, more homeowners are choosing fire sprinklers each year. In fact, in a 2005 Harris Interactive Survey conducted by the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition, 69 percent of homeowners believed fire sprinklers would add more value to their homes.

One reason residential fire sprinkler systems have become so cost-effective is because they are installed using plastic pipe or tubing — either CPVC (chloro-polyvinyl chloride) or PEX (cross-linked polyethylene), depending on the design.

Design and Installation

Residential fire sprinkler systems can either be connected to a home’s main plumbing or as a separate system off a home’s water supply. They are simple systems and are significantly different than complex commercial systems.

A multipurpose fire sprinkler system connects the fire sprinklers to the same domestic water lines as other plumbing fixtures and fittings in a home, such as faucets, showers and toilets. Whenever the water is running in a home, it also flows through the fire sprinkler system, held back by each sprinkler head.

In a stand-alone fire sprinkler system, the fire sprinklers are connected separately to the incoming water supply and operate independently from the domestic water lines. A flow alarm can be installed on the outside of a home that alerts neighbors with a siren and strobe light when a fire sprinkler has activated.

Typically, a home fire sprinkler system installation occurs after the HVAC, plumbing and electrical are in place. Fire sprinklers can be installed while other contractors are working, having no significant impact on the design and construction process. However, it is important that the system is installed according to the national standard NFPA 13D to ensure code compliance and effective and efficient operation.

Both the multipurpose and stand-alone fire sprinkler systems protect homeowners equally well, and each have their own cost-saving benefits; best of all, in return for installing either fire sprinkler system in homes, many jurisdictions often offer money-saving trade-ups to the home builder or developer.

When constructing a home or multiple homes in a development with fire sprinklers, home builders can often negotiate with local officials for significant cost-saving incentives. Since the homes are better protected from fire, local jurisdictions can reduce their normal requirements.

With a single home, fire sprinklers may allow for it to be spaced further from the fire hydrant. In the case of a fully “sprinklered” subdivision, fewer fire hydrants may be needed, street widths may be reduced, and homes may be placed closer together so more homes can be built.

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