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Debate Over Sprinklers in New Homes Becomes a Hot Issue Across The Nation

April 21, 2010

Georgia lawmakers this week rejected a residential sprinkler mandate.

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The ongoing battle between builders and fire service officials over building codes that mandate the installation of fire sprinklers into new homes is being played out this spring in statehouses and courtrooms.

On Monday, Georgia's House of Representatives voted, by 111 to 51, in favor of a law, House Bill 1196, which prohibits government agencies from requiring sprinklers in one- or two-family dwellings. The Home Builders Association of Georgia was instrumental in getting that bill introduced and in crafting its language, according to Kelly Lass, the trade group's executive vice president. The bill moves to the Senate for consideration on Thursday.

Georgia is among several states that have been pushing lawmakers to prevent the enforcement of a national building code, which goes into effect next January, that includes provisions for fire sprinklers to be installed in all new residential dwellings. That code, which members of the International Code Council (ICC) approved in a controversial vote in the fall of 2008, has ignited new skirmishes across the country between builders who resist construction mandates in general and insist sprinklers would make the cost of their homes prohibitive; and fire marshals who insist that sprinklers can prevent fatalities that in their absence might otherwise occur in houses that have become more vulnerable to the rapid spread of fire.

Despite aggressive lobbying by fire service groups, and endorsements by the Federal Emergency Management Administration and the Institute for Business & Home Safety, which represents insurers and reinsurers, only a few states—Pennsylvania, Iowa, California, New Hampshire, and South Carolina—so far have incorporated a residential fire sprinkler provision into their new codes. Maryland is moving in that direction, and communities within such states as Maine and Colorado will also require sprinklers in new homes.

More commonly, bills pending in several other states—which have often been introduced at the urging of their builder associations—would either postpone or nullify any code with a residential sprinkler component. Anti-sprinkler legislation in Iowa appears to be dead for the moment, but adoption of the new code would still be delayed for one- and two-family houses until 2013. New Jersey's new governor, Chris Christie, has placed a 90-day moratorium on all new regulations and reportedly wants to excise the sprinkler requirement from the state's updated building codes. In Texas, Gov. Rick Perry has signed legislation that prohibits municipalities in the state from adopting sprinkler ordinances.

"Right now, we're just fighting battles one by one," says John Viniello, president of the National Fire Sprinkler Association (NFSA), whose Web site includes a state-by-state legislative update.

On March 3, Viniello and other NFSA representatives met with Jerry Howard, the NAHB's chief executive, and his staff to discuss ways the two groups might work together in states where a sprinkler code has been adopted, such as advocating adjustments in zoning and densities for sprinklered communities that might benefit builders and developers. Viniello says Howard promised to present this proposal to NAHB's Executive Board by April 15. (A spokesperson for NAHB, Callie Schmidt, confirmed the meeting took place, but could not confirm that a date had been set for presenting items discussed to the executive board.)

Agreement between builders and the fire-fighting community is rare when fire sprinklers are at issue. Since the sprinkler mandate got written into the 2009 International Residential Code (IRC), builders have stepped up their lobbying efforts to thwart its acceptance and enforcement in their states and municipalities. Their efforts have been mostly successful, with a few setbacks.

Last week, an appellate court in Pennsylvania upheld that state's new building code, which includes regulations requiring sprinklers in all new townhouses and one- and two-family homes. The Pennsylvania HBA had requested a preliminary injunction prohibiting the enforcement of any new building codes. The trade group in January filed a lawsuit calling for the state to roll back its building codes to 2006 regulations.

Scott Elliott, a spokesperson for this HBA,says the trade group contends that Pennsylvania does not have the constitutional right to turn over its building codes to an entity outside the state, which it would be doing, the HBA contends, by allowing the 2009 IRC to become the abiding code. Elliott notes that the Pennsylvania HBA is opposed not only to the new code's sprinkler mandate, but also to a host of other changes—from limitations on duct lengths to increases on wall bracings and foundation anchors—that, the HBA estimates, would add $13,000 to the price of a house.

This is about a building code that is out of control," says Elliott. "Plus in Pennsylvania we have a fatal flaw in that the ICC code is adopted automatically in its entirety every three years. That is too often, and the changes and costs are too great." The HBA is hoping that its lawsuit will be heard in May or June.

Much of those costs--just less than $8,000 of those added expenses, or $3.49 per square foot, on average—would derive from the installation of a sprinkler system. The cost of putting fire sprinklers in new homes remains the most contentious issue in this debate across the country, especially for builders that are still have trouble drumming up customers in a weak economy.

Fire service officials, to support their argument, point to a 2008 study, conducted for the NFSA's Fire Prevention Research Foundation, which analyzed 30 house plans in 10 communities and found that the cost of sprinkler installation into a new home averaged $1.61 per square foot.

Building codes in Pennsylvania's Upper Merion Township have required sprinkler systems in all new residential construction since 1988. The township's chief fire marshal, John Waters, provided BUILDER with permit data from 2007 through 2009 for homes in which sprinklers had been installed into homes whose sizes range from 2,100 to 7,942 square feet. Those installations added, on average, between $1.49 and $1.82 per square foot to construction costs of the homes, and between 0.3% to 2.6% to their selling prices.

Waters concedes that sprinkler systems cost more to install in homes that draw water from wells (as many towns in Pennsylvania do) that might require larger pumps or supplemental water tanks to provide the 26 gallons per minute these systems are required to produce in the event of a fire. But he remains unconvinced that builders are open to finding solutions through compromise. And Waters bristles when builders challenge the expertise of fire service people in matters of safety.

"Builders don't want to hear facts and regurgitate the same arguments they made 20 years ago," says Waters. "When I ask 'where are your experts,' they ignore me. All of their arguments are based on emotion."

NFSA, though, remains optimistic that sprinkler installation will eventually become more widespread. It has been working with the Center for Public Safety Excellence o develop an accredited sprinkler installer program, which would include classroom and field training, and insurance verification. Vineillo says the goal is to get this program launched in states where new sprinkler codes have been adopted by July 1.

John Caulfield is senior editor for BUILDER magazine.