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Depending on where you live, the new home you build may require a feature that most people have never thought to include before: a fire-protection sprinkler system. These cousins of the systems found in commercial and institutional buildings are steadily making their way into new construction and some older homes as well, thanks in large part to local ordinances that mandate sprinkler systems in new construction or in major renovations. But even in communities where systems aren't required by law, homeowners are installing fire sprinkler systems based on the simple fact that they save lives and money.
Sprinklers have saved 13 lives in Scottsdale, Ariz., where they've been required in new construction since 1986 and where 53 percent of homes have such systems. What's more, fires in 49 single-family homes equipped with sprinklers caused just $106,110 in damage, compared with a possible loss of more than $20 million if the homes had been destroyed, said Jim Ford, Scottsdale's fire marshal and assistant fire chief.
The loss per house in those fires averaged slightly more than $2,100. Gary Keith, chairman of the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition and vice president of regional operations for the National Fire Protection Association in Quincy, Mass., said a combination of a sprinkler system with an existing smoke detector can increase the level of fire protection within a home by 82 percent.
"The reality with fire deaths," Keith said, "is that most people die in residential fires. People are most at risk where they feel the safest." Keith said sprinklers are a "life safety system" designed to protect residents' escape routes. That's why National Fire Protection Association Standard 13-D - the industry guideline for systems in single- and two-family dwellings - requires sprinklers in occupied spaces but not in areas such as closets, small bathrooms and attics. (Scottsdale has added garages to its required coverage, though 13-D doesn't require it.) Some jurisdictions have allowed builders to install sprinkler systems only in rooms with fire-generating elements, such as stoves and furnaces. But Tom Lia, executive director of the Northern Illinois Fire Sprinkler Advisory Board in Orland Park, Ill., said such installations are contrary to information about where home fires actually begin. The majority of fires are caused by smoking in bed, children playing with matches and candles left unattended, Lia said, not by malfunctioning appliances. A fire sprinkler system for new home construction will increase the cost of the house by 1 to 1.5 percent. On a square-foot basis, the cost runs from a low of 55 cents to 70 cents in a competitive market, such as Scottsdale, to a more typical $1.25 to $2.50 in developing markets, such as Massachusetts and Illinois.
Steve Cook, president of SCS Home Fire Protection Inc. of Blackstone, Mass., said the cost of installing a sprinkler system in a new home is similar to putting in wall-to-wall carpeting. And in Scottsdale, Ford said, it's now cheaper to install a fire sprinkler system than it is to "cover your windows or put in a patio." Costs for retrofitting an existing home with a sprinkler system are at least double the cost of new home systems. That high cost explains why retrofitting remains a small part of the sprinkler market. The total cost may be lower, however, if extensive home renovation, such as removal of existing drywall, is involved. Sprinklers are not a do-it-yourself endeavor; experts recommend that qualified contractors be used. Some states require installers to be licensed. Retrofits can be messy. Jamie Reap, vice president-residential division for U.S. Fire Protection of Illinois, a fire sprinkler system installer in Lake Forest, Ill., said homeowners will also need to hire a carpenter to cut and patch drywall, which will be removed to accommodate pipe and sprinkler head installation.
Before a system can be designed and installed, the home's water supply needs to be measured with a flow test and the size of the water line coming into the house determined. Reap said the ideal water service is 1.25- to 1.5-inch pipe, although smaller sizes - 1 or even three-quarters of an inch - can work if the water pressure is sufficient. If pressure and pipe size are inadequate, a separate reservoir tank and pump will be needed to supply water to the sprinkler system. This can add several thousand dollars to the cost. SCS's Cook said that in areas where public water isn't available, residents can use their well and a variety of pump systems. Battery backup will ensure that if the power goes out, a pump will continue to supply water to the system, he said. Reap noted that some states, Illinois among them, require a backflow preventer as part of the system. This prevents stagnant sprinkler water from getting into the home's drinking water, he said.
Sprinkler systems consist primarily of pipe and fittings made of chloro-polyvinyl chloride, or CPVC, although some communities require copper piping to be used where it is exposed, such as in basements. Sprinkler heads vary, with many home systems featuring nearly invisible, aesthetically pleasing plate models that are recessed into the ceiling. Other styles include pendant sprinklers, which can also be recessed so as little as half an inch is visible, and sidewall-mounted models.
Although home sprinklers may look similar to those found in commercial buildings, the in-home units are engineered to respond differently to a fire, Reap said. Residential sprinklers, he said, "spray high on the wall because furnishings are typically on the perimeter of the room." Commercial models spray in a more downward direction. Typically, one sprinkler head can cover an area of 150 square feet, although some models can handle up to 400 square feet. Another requirement, which varies by community, is an audible alarm tied to the sprinkler system's activation. Many communities require an external alarm, sometimes with a strobe, which can help firefighters find the home. Sprinkler systems can be tied into a home's security system.
Once a sprinkler system is in a home, an annual visual inspection of the system and backflow test are often required under community regulation or at least recommended. Among the biggest hurdles to widespread acceptance of home sprinklers are myths about how they operate. Experts say one source of misinformation is the film industry's frequent portrayal of sprinkler systems soaking everything after being triggered by a single match held to a head. In fact, sprinkler heads are triggered individually, so a fire in the kitchen will not set off the sprinklers in the rest of the house. In fact, 95 percent of home fires are controlled by just one sprinkler head. Nor do sprinklers pour large (and damaging) amounts of water on fires.
A residential sprinkler sprays 10 to 18 gallons of water per minute, compared with 175 to 200 gallons a minute from a fire hose. Perhaps the biggest myth is that sprinklers are prone to accidental triggering. In fact, the chance of a sprinkler going off accidentally is one in 16 million. Household heat won't set them off, since triggering requires a temperature of about 165° F. And they aren't set off by smoke. Lia, of the Northern Illinois Fire Sprinkler Advisory Board, said that one of the biggest advantages of home sprinklers is the speed with which they begin to douse flames. Because they respond so soon after the fire begins, they keep the fire from reaching flashover - the point at which all materials in a room reach a combustible temperature and everything ignites.
Flashover can occur in an unsprinklered house before firefighters arrive. n