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Published: Monday, 10/4/2010

Residential Fire Sprinkler System Ignites Heated Debate

(MS) -- Every 90 seconds, a home fire is reported in the United States. According to the National Fire Protection Association, eight out of 10 fire fatalities occur where we feel safest -- in our own homes. Many fires start at night and research shows young children and older adults are the majority of victims in home fires.

Would installing fire sprinklers save lives? Is the added cost a necessary investment for homeowners? Should it be mandated by law?

The nation's leading building code body, the International Code Council (ICC), thinks so. The ICC develops the codes used to construct residential and commercial buildings, including homes and schools. Most U.S. cities, counties and states that adopt codes choose the international codes developed by the ICC. The ICC fire sprinkler mandate stipulates that all new residential homes, both one- and two-family dwellings, must include fire sprinklers starting Jan. 1, 2011.

A heated debate among builders, fire marshals and consumers has ignited in the wake of the ICC mandate. Opinions run the gamut, depending on who you talk to: Fire officials welcome the mandate, while some builders say this is an unnecessary and costly precaution.

"Fire sprinklers save lives," says Stan Scofield, a fire inspector from Plymouth, Minn. "We have never seen a fatality in a home fire where a working fire sprinkler system was installed. Unfortunately, we see our fair share of tragedies in homes without one installed."

Critics argue that the cost of building a new home is already high, and that adding the expense of fire sprinklers may turn some homeowners away from the building process.

"I am including a fire safety system in a home that we are currently building," Jim Moras, owner of Highmark Builders of Burnsville, Minn., says. "In this case, we are putting it in based on a request from the homeowner. But I think the industry is balking at having a mandate that demands sprinklers in every new home built, potentially driving up the final house cost."

But some homeowners liken sprinklers to having their own personal "fire department" on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week for protection and peace of mind. A residential fire sprinkler system can contain a fire in less time than it would take the fire department to arrive on the scene. Yet, only about two percent of U.S. homes are equipped with fire sprinklers.

"Research makes a compelling argument to mandate fire safety systems in residential building codes," says Jayson Drake, senior product manager, Plumbing and Fire Safety, for Uponor North America. "And with an industry standard cost of approximately $1.61 per square foot, the investment for homeowners equals that of granite countertops and stainless steel appliances -- common upgrades by today's standard. But this upgrade saves lives."

Although the cost of installing a fire safety system seems to be a central issue, excluding a system based on a price tag may be a shortsighted decision. According to the nonprofit Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition, fires cause more than $6 billion in direct property damage every year in U.S. homes. Much of this damage is caused by firefighters' hoses, which discharge 200 gallons of water per minute into a burning home.

Conversely, a fire sprinkler sprays 10 to 15 gallons per minute, minimizing overall property damage. And with only the sprinklers closest to the fire activating, 90 percent of fires are contained by the operation of just one or two sprinklers, causing only a fraction of the water damage of a fire department hose. With the ICC mandate in effect, the annual $6 billion property damage figure should decrease significantly over the next decade, according to Drake from Uponor.

Though these savings won't pay for the initial installation investment, some homeowners and real estate agents are starting to recognize that sprinklers may be a good long-term investment.

"As more and more homes include a fire sprinkler system, I believe it can increase the value of your home and its resale value," according to Colleen Larson, a Minneapolis-based RE/MAX real estate agent. "New homes often set the trend for what consumers demand, and as we see more and more homes outfitted with sprinklers, they will become a much-desired request by buyers."

Aside from cost, consumer demand, insurance rates, and water and property damage, the core reason for including a fire safety system is often an emotional one. The most precious belongings we have -- our family, photo albums showcasing our lives and keepsakes from the past -- are found in our homes. A house fire destroys irreplaceable mementos unique only to our lives. For many, this becomes the main reason to include a fire sprinkler system.



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