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A Sprinkling of Code Change

Among the code changes currently under consideration by the International Code Council (the governing body of the International Building Codes) is one that would mandate the installation of residential sprinkler systems in one- and two-family dwellings, as well as manufactured homes. Though the desire to require residential sprinklers is not new, the momentum and support for making these changes is growing. In fact, those in favor of these code revisions believe the 2009 International Building Code could mandate sprinklers for all dwelling units. If adopted, the standard would be added to Chapter 43 of the National Fire Protection Agency NFPA 13 D under the heading of Sprinkler Systems in One- and Two-Family Dwellings and Manufactured Homes.

Proponents of residential sprinkler systems point to numerous studies and statistics indicating the need to provide sprinklers for all dwelling units. For example, the 2000 America Burning Recommissioned report states that in 1997 there were 582,000 structure fires in the United States. Almost three-quarters of those fires occurred in residential properties, approximately half of which were one- and two-family homes. The largest number of civilian deaths occurred in residential buildings.

“…those in favor of these code revisions believe the 2009 International Building Code could mandate sprinklers for all dwelling units.”

The Scottsdale Report, another case study focusing on residential sprinkler systems, has documented statistics related to the 1986 implementation of an ordinance requiring all dwelling units in Scottsdale, Arizona to have automatic sprinklers. According to this report, over 50 percent of the 41,408 homes in the Scottsdale area were protected with fire sprinkler systems. No fire-related fatalities were reported in single family homes with sprinklers. However, thirteen people perished in homes without sprinklers. The report further points out that less fire damage was recorded in homes with sprinklers. More specifically, the average fire loss per sprinklered incident was approximately $2,000 while the average fire loss per unsprinklered incident was approximately $45,000. Water damage was also far lower in homes with sprinkler systems. This was due primarily to the fact that 90 percent of the fires were contained by the operation of just one sprinkler head, which discharged significantly less water per fire incident than firefighter hoses would have.

Those against residential sprinklers being mandated by code (mainly home builder associations) fear that the added costs to provide sprinkler systems may force buyers out of the market. Nonetheless, with recent advances in sprinkler technologies, the costs associated with the installation of these systems have been steadily declining. National averages are currently running between $1.00 and $1.50 per square foot, equating to approximately 1 to 1.5 percent of a building’s total cost. System costs are expected to continue to fall as technology further improves and the number of systems installed increases. Additionally, cost savings can come in the form of reduced rates offered by many insurance carriers for dwellings that include automatic sprinkler systems. Statistics show that the average home owner could see savings of up to 15 percent of their annual insurance premium.

It appears that residential sprinkler code requirements for one- and two-family homes are inevitable and will be in place very soon. Hopefully, governing agencies, manufacturers, and other interested parties will begin to proactively collaborate to create effective sprinkler systems that are affordable for those people that the codes are trying to protect.

– John D. Reed, LEED AP

John Reed is a Senior Fire Protection and Plumbing Designer, as well as a LEED Accredited Professional. Please feel free to contact John for further details regarding the above information.