Patio home sprinkler systems create hot debate in Peters

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Dozens of patio homeowners packed a Peters meeting Monday, asking that council rescind an ordinance requiring sprinkler systems in their homes.

"I can't tell you how stressful it is," said John Williams, president of the Hidden Brook Homeowners Association. "Some people are afraid to live in their homes.  We all worry about that next break."

Homeowners have been experiencing frozen and broken sprinkler pipes, resulting in thousands of dollars in damages.

Mr. Williams said his homeowners insurance premium has doubled since two sprinkler pipes broke in his home, causing $150,000 in damages.  And his case is not unusual.

He said there have been 31 similar incidents among the 372 patio homes in the township since 2007, though the township fire department said its records indicate it has answered only about half as many calls in the past seven years.

The issue came to a head in January, when Donna Huffner Spencer told council her 82-year-old mother's patio home sustained $60,000-$70,000 in damages during two sprinkler system breaks. Nancy Huffner was displaced by the incident and was fearful about returning to her home, her daughter said.

At the time, council said it would investigate the issue.  Members unveiled a report Monday that was compiled by township staff that indicated there are several outstanding problems with the requirement.

Among them are a cumbersome definition of patio homes, which has changed over time.  In 1997, council created the requirement for sprinklers as patio homes began being built because they were within 15 feet of each other and located on common ground.  There also were issues differentiating patio homes from other high-density residences, such as townhomes or condominiums.  

"It is true that we are the only community in southwestern Pennsylvania that requires sprinklers in patio homes," said township manager Michael Silvestri.  "The reason the provision was put in was to save lives."

Mr. Silvestri said the township had negotiated a reduced price of between $800-$1,200 for installation of an anti-freezing additive that could keep pipes from freezing and bursting. Most damage occurred during harsh winters, such as this year's, Mr. Silvestri said, and most were blamed on poor insulation.

The majority of newer patio homes are much more than 15 feet apart, and most homeowners also own the lot they live on, residents told council.  They favor eliminating the sprinkler requirement in favor of mandatory smoke detectors that would be wired into the home's power source with a battery backup and constant monitoring by an outside company.  

The cost to homeowners would also be reduced dramatically, eliminating the more than $300 each homeowner must pay annually for inspection and maintenance of sprinklers, said Paul Jorgensen, resident of Prestonwood.  The cost to operate monitored smoke detectors would be about $15 per month, he estimated.  A survey of people in his development showed 100 percent favored elimination of sprinklers in favor of smoke detectors, Mr. Jorgensen said.

"A smoke alarm would save your life," he said.  "The risk of death is cut in half."

But fire experts said that risk could be reduced further with sprinklers.

"A sprinkler is a life-saving device, while a smoke detector is a good warning device," said township fire Chief Dan Coyle.  "It's something I believe strongly in.  A sprinkler head is a 24-hour-a-day fireman."

Studies have shown that while smoke detectors cut the risk of fire deaths, they can be virtually eliminated through the use of sprinklers, which are activated when they reach 155 degrees Fahrenheit, Chief Coyle said.

Chief Coyle drew jeers from the crowd when he suggested older adults are more likely to die in fire deaths due to becoming disoriented.  And, he said the risk to firefighters also is on the increase with the use of cheaper building materials that have caused more building collapses.

Still, Chief Coyle said he understood the predicament being faced by residents.

"There's got to be somewhere along the line that we can meet in the middle," he said.

Council members said they could revise the ordinance, but doing so would place requirements on new construction.  Current homes would not be affected, they said.

"I can't re-impose a burden on homeowners," said Councilman Frank Arcuri, who is a lawyer.

"It's going to take some legal research and some thought," to resolve the issue, Councilman David Ball said.

Mr. Jorgensen asked council to remember his neighbor, who recently had $50,000 in damage due to a second break in his sprinkler system.

"It's aging him.  It's aging his wife," Mr. Jorgensen said of his neighbor.  "They're going through a very traumatic experience.  It's more than just numbers.  You cannot begin to comprehend it if you can't see it yourself."


Janice Crompton: jcrompton@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1159.

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