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Extinguishing the Fire Sprinkler Debate

With so many advances in technology, building materials, and life safety systems, it is no surprise that building construction techniques and the design process have also evolved. On the coattails of these advances in the industry come requisite changes in code requirements. Many of the code changes are heavily debated on local and national platforms, but few have sparked more conversation than the recent changes to the International Residential Code (IRC) mandating the installation of residential fire sprinkler systems in one- and two-family dwellings and townhomes.

In December of 2008, the International Code Council (ICC) voted to reject an appeal by the National Association of Home Builders seeking to remove the residential fire sprinkler requirements from the upcoming edition of the IRC. With the administrative appeals process behind them, the ICC has included the requirement for the installation of residential fire sprinkler systems in all new one- and two-family dwellings and townhomes in the 2009 edition of the IRC. The requirement only applies to new construction and to existing one- and two-family dwellings and townhomes that already have fire sprinkler systems installed. The code change does not require existing buildings to be retrofitted with fire sprinkler systems.

Publication of the official code change occurs in March of 2009, and at that time each state and local jurisdiction has the option to adopt or reject the new code. Currently the IRC is adopted in its original or amended form in 48 states and will likely continue to be widely adopted. For states and jurisdictions that adopt the code, there is a delay provision in the requirements for the one- and two- family dwellings that lists the implementation date as January 1, 2011. This will allow local municipalities to educate owners, designers, contractors, and code officials on the installation requirements. The townhome requirement is effective upon adoption of the code.

“The primary reason for these code additions is to evolve construction techniques to improve life safety.”

The primary reason for these code additions is to evolve construction techniques to improve life safety. Fire deaths in the United States have declined over the past three decades as smoke alarms have become more widely used. Today, more than 95% of homes have smoke alarms and still, more than 3,000 people die from fires each year. According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), 80% of all fire-related deaths in a typical year occur in homes. Fire is also the largest single cause of property loss in the United States. The NFPA reports $5.7 billion in direct property loss per year from fire in one- and two-family dwellings. Improvements in overall fire safety should help improve life safety as well as protect property.

In addition to the benefits of life safety and property preservation, some insurance companies are offering savings ranging from 5% to 30% off the fire portion of homeowner premiums. With the installation of sprinkler systems ranging in cost from $1.00 to $1.40 per square foot, property owners and homebuilders alike may be encouraged to buy and build safer homes, turning the heated debate of code change into a positive advancement in life and property safety.

– Timothy J. Scharf, PE, LEED AP

Tim is a Principal, Licensed Mechanical Engineer, and LEED Accredited Professional. Please feel free to contact Tim for further details regarding the above information.