The sprinkler controversy

On Tuesday evening, Wicomico County Council will hold a public hearing and perhaps adopt an exemption to the fire sprinkler requirements now contained in the 2009 International Residential Code. While the state has adopted the 2009 IRC, counties are allowed to exempt themselves from portions therein and this is where the controversy lies.

The issue has pitted two sides which are normally allied against each other. TEA Party activists generally align themselves with those in the public safety industry, but part ways on this issue because of the added cost and regulations on new construction. (At this time, existing structures don’t fall under the jurisdiction of the code in question unless another type of building, such as a one-room schoolhouse, were to be converted to a single-family dwelling.)

I’ll admit my code knowledge has become a little bit rusty due to time away from the building industry, but in general the building code (now embodied in a series of International Codes; the former situation of three different code organizations has disappeared with their merger) has become more stringent over the years when it comes to life safety. (Conversely, though, they have tended to allow greater flexibility in achieving that goal.) The overarching concern of those who write the codes, though, remains in allowing those in peril to have the maximum opportunity to reach a place of safety – so they heavily stress maintaining the integrity of egress paths and use the tactic of separating larger spaces into smaller ones where a fire may be contained in order to shorten escape routes. These mostly occur in spaces where public occupancy is intended.

Yet the principles remain the same in residential dwellings, where the paramount concern is egress. In general, one doesn’t have nearly as far to travel to safety as they would in a public building; on the other hand, oftentimes they are much closer to the hazard of a fire. Occupants may have fewer exits to choose from as well, perhaps needing to resort to escaping through a window.

The idea behind sprinkers is obvious: eliminating the hazard of fire by having a system in place to neutralize it. While it’s not a foolproof strategy, dousing the fire to prevent its spread would gain occupants precious time in escaping the hazard.

The element of safety, though, comes at a price: it’s estimated that a sprinkler system would cost a new homeowner perhaps $10,000 to $20,000 in up-front costs. Granted, the cost could decrease somewhat as demand increases and additional players enter the market; still, in a market where new home prices can run as little as $100,000 that is a significant increase. Even without the requirenent, homeowners are free to add the system on their own.

But who else benefits? As I note above, the group coming out most strongly in favor of sprinklers are local firefighters, who ostensibly would have less to do if the work at a burning home is done for them by a sprinkler system. But they would still have to answer the service call, and it’s doubtful they’ll be asking for less monetary assistance from the county should they reject the idea of exempting themselves from this requirement.

Certainly insurance companies are foursquare behind this idea as well, since property damage would be limited in the instance of home-based sprinklers. Of course, the small break one would get on a premium pales in comparison, and just try getting a claim from water damage settled if the sprinkler system goes awry and douses your room full of electronic equipment.

It can even be argued that this promotes employment, since someone has to install the sprinklers and certainly those who are qualified to do so will see a spike in the demand for their services.

Even so, I think the exemption needs to be adopted. Yes, there are benefits to having a sprinkler system in one’s house, and the option is already available to the homeowner should he or she choose to adopt it and pay the extra cost.

But there are those groups (like Habitat for Humanity) who work to fill a void in the market at the low end, and adopting this requirement could price their clients out of the market. Certainly if you’re building a $400,000 house an extra $10,000 isn’t much of a hassle, but on an $80,000 budget sprinklers can be a deal-breaker. Builders already have to deal with a multitude of fees and red tape from local government, and this additional burden comes at a bad time.

And where does the nanny state stop? Perhaps the next edition of the IRC comes out and mandates a sprinkler system be installed with any major renovation to an existing dwelling. Obviously there’s an argument that requiring smoke alarms and detectors in single-family dwellings didn’t hurt anything, but for the most part those are relatively unobtrusive (except for the ear-splitting tone when you burn that steak in the broiler) and inexpensive. Retrofitting a sprinkler system is a much more dicey proposition.

There are compelling arguments to both sides, but with fire deaths in Maryland on a long-term downward trend the adoption of this ordinance seems to have a larger cost than benefit. Obviously one can’t dismiss the eight people who lost their lives in Wicomico County due to fire from 2004 to 2008 but we also don’t want to underestimate the negative impact such a move would have on the local economy, either.

It’s time to adopt the exemption. As I noted above, a homeowner or builder is free to install a system for their new homes – but I notice they rarely do. Since the cost doesn’t outweigh the benefit to them, why should our county government allow the international code agency to put its thumb on the scale?

By the way, since I often take potshots at him, let me give kudos to County Executive Rick Pollitt for placing the exemption before County Council.

Author: Michael

It's me from my laptop computer.

12 thoughts on “The sprinkler controversy”

  1. Michael,

    Well written post. My wife and I are just starting the process of building a house, and though our cost doesn’t quite reach the cost in the article ($7000 vs $10,000) it is still a lot more money than we want to spend.

    I did hear back from my insurance broker who said any premium benefit from installing it would be minimal. Even if we got a 15% premium reduction that the US Fire Administration claims we would, it would take close to 90 years to recover the cost of the install.

    I’ll probably be there tuesday.

  2. I’m glad you took the time to cover an issue like this one. I’m sure this type of stuff flies under the radar or most people during these times, but this stuff is important too. When a government makes a law that will cost a lot of people a lot more money we need to pay attention.

    This law seems to make sense for businesses, but for private homes shouldn’t that be up to the homeowner?

  3. Exactly. And imagine this scenario…

    1. Sprinkler law passes.
    2. Contractors, good and bad, line up to get into the line of work.
    3. The more successful contractors come back to government and tell them, “say, we’ve noticed there’s a few fly-by-night operators out there…how about installing a nice, hefty licensing fee and requirement on them? You can’t just be a regular plumber to install sprinklers!”
    4. The larger companies are happy to pass on the licensing fee to consumers while keeping the smaller fish out.

    Sound familiar? The playing field can get very tilted in a short time.

  4. We are looking at building a new home. This legislation will hurt those mos at the bottom of the economic ladder

    Just imagine if your electricity goes off in subzero weather and the pipes burst. The damage would not just be in your crawl space but also in the cielings. Water would ruin all your interior furnishings

    This law is crazy

  5. Sprinklers in a municipal supplied area cost nowhere near the numbers that you present. Take Fruitland for instance. Their meters and 1 inch lines are capable of producing the 25 gpm that are required for residential sprinklers. Making the cost of them between $1.50 and $2.00 per square foot. As far as people having a choice, which is an argument expressed often, how much choice do the people really have considering in a typical housing market, over 80% of the homes are built by the builders, not the owners. The builders have the choice, NOT the owner.

  6. The key word in your reply is MUNICIPAL. Our water system essentially handles Salisbury, Delmar, and Fruitland. What if you’d like to live outside of these areas? I know we already have a governor trying to run development out of rural areas by proposing a ban on septic systems for large developments (which over time will be extended to single-family homes – just wait a few years) and mandating sprinklers in those unsupplied areas would also have a chilling effect by costing far more than the $1.50 a square foot you claim.

    And I hate to break this to you, but the owner DOES have a choice in that they can have a home built to their specs if they insist on a sprinkler system. If they want a prebuilt home without sprinklers they can get one of those too. It has nothing to do with what a builder does since many homes are custom-built.

  7. There are far more homes in a typical housing market that are built as spec homes or another marketing type strategy. A much smaller percentage are actually built by the owner through a builder. This allows the sprinkler to be the decision of the builder, not the eventual owner. The key word in your resopnse is IF they want a prebuilt home they CAN…. Then only buyers building from ground up are the ones with big pocketbooks. Most buyers will settle for something already built. Just look back during the boom at all the new subdivisions with new homes and for sale signs. Those houses were not built by the owner. Opting out of sprinklers may have been understandable in the county, but in municipalities, where water supplies make sprinklers much more feasible and affordable, it is probably a good idea.

  8. Let me also add. Smoke alarms may help in reducing fatalities, but they do nothing as far as limiting damage, supressing fire, or lessening the exposure of our fire men and women who have to battle the blaze. A sprinkled home can extinguish the fire. The money saved even from a small fire through sprinklers, because of the much lesser degree of smoke and water damage, will pay for the sprinler system 10 times over.

  9. And that’s why the insurance companies and firemen are gung ho for them, because it saves both money. Yet, when you pay only a few hundred dollars a year for home insurance even a 20% break is peanuts compared to the increased cost to the homeowner for a sprinkler system.

    I’ll grant that codewise a sprinkler system makes very good sense in commercial buildings because of the large addition in allowable square feet based on the occupancy and construction type – it’s especially significant for 5-B construction (the most prevalent type since it allows for a combustible wood frame.) But that’s not as important in residential construction, where you concede that smoke alarms save lives. (As I pointed out in the original post, egress is much less of a concern in houses.) Sprinklers tend to save property in those instances. So again I’ll point out that, if it’s that important to someone, they will insist on building a house with a sprinkler system and bear the cost. Obviously there’s little demand for it so, just as obviously, both people and builders weigh the costs over the benefits.

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