New state sprinkler law: Shower of safety or just all wet?

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Supporters and foes of a new state rule requiring sprinkler systems in single-family homes describe their dispute as a battle between public safety and consumer choice.

Residential sprinkler systems, also called fire suppression systems, will save lives, Butler Township fire marshal Larry Christy predicted.

"We don't leave it up to car buyers to decide if they want seat belts, [child] car seats or air bags," he said. "Sometime the government has to step in."

With the housing market slowly recovering from the worst recession in roughly 75 years, now is not the time to impose new costs on home buyers, James Eichenlaub, executive director of the Builders Association of Metropolitan Pittsburgh, warned.

If a home buyer wants a fire-suppression system installed in a house, contractors will install one, he said. "But we're opposed to a government mandate that replaces a voluntary consumer decision."

The new provision of the state building code requires that single-family and duplex homes granted construction permits after Jan. 1 of this year be equipped with sprinklers. Similar rules already apply to new townhouses, condominiums, apartment buildings and commercial structures.

The law does not require that existing homes be retrofitted with fire-suppression systems.

Pennsylvania and California are the only two states to have a statewide requirement for residential sprinklers in all homes.

The fact that Pennsylvania's new law does not require that older homes have sprinkler systems makes Mr. Eichenlaub skeptical of claims for the life-saving benefits of sprinklers. Most fire deaths occur in older homes, he said, yet their owners have not been ordered to put in sprinklers.

Are homes safe enough?

Builders already have made major changes in single-family homes to make them safer, Mr. Eichenlaub said.

Most significant, he said, are hard-wired smoke alarm systems -- those that are not dependent on batteries -- with detectors in every bedroom and on every floor of a new house. They are connected to a home's electric service, include battery backup and cannot be disabled, he said.

Other improvements include larger windows to allow emergency escapes, improved circuit breakers and cellar doors to provide access from the basement to the outside.

Statistics from the U.S. Fire Administration show a 14 percent decrease in residential fire deaths in the country between 2005 and 2009, the last year for which national statistics are available. Deaths dipped from 2,895 in 2005 to 2,480 in 2009. Injuries also dropped, from 13,375 to 12,600, or 6 percent, during the same period.

Mr. Christy, a former fire chief in Butler, did not dispute Mr. Eichenlaub's contention that new homes are safer in many ways, but he said fire suppression systems add another level of protection.

While smoke alarms provide fire warning, they cannot slow or stop "flashover" -- the moment at which a growing fire has ignited all the combustible items in a room or building, he said. Residential sprinkler systems, however, can.

Tony Fleming, president of Metropolitan Fire Protection, which installs fire-suppression systems, pointed to evidence that the systems save lives. Residential fire deaths have dropped in Maryland's Prince George's County, where an estimated 50,000 single-family homes have been built with sprinklers over the past 20 years, he said.

Supporters also have argued that sprinklers may increase safety for firefighters by preventing or delaying the collapse of a burning home.

At what cost?

Mr. Eichenlaub, however, said sprinkler systems add significant building costs for what he called "a minuscule amount of additional protection."

Both sides agree that the costs for installing sprinkler systems will increase home prices by several thousand dollars.

Mr. Christy, co-chairman of the Pennsylvania Residential Fire Sprinkler Coalition, said his group estimates the cost of installing sprinkler systems at an average of $1.61 per square foot. That would raise the builder's cost for a 2,000-square-foot home by about $3,200. That cost, plus the builder's variable profit, will be passed on to the buyer.

That base number sounded realistic to Mr. Fleming, whose company has an office in Cranberry and installs fire-suppression systems in four states and the District of Columbia.

Another national study estimated the cost of installing pipes and sprinkler heads at $1.50 to $1.75 per square foot in a new home, he said.

Homeowners in rural areas without public water supplies could be especially hard hit by the new requirements. Many will need to purchase water storage tanks and auxiliary pumps and provide backup power sources for their sprinkler systems, Mr. Eichenlaub said.

He said his organization also was concerned about higher permitting and maintenance costs associated with residential sprinkler systems.

The plumbing division of the Allegheny County Health Department will oversee permits and inspections for residential sprinkler systems for local municipalities, department spokesman Guillermo Cole said.

Permit fees for one- and two-unit residences are likely to mimic those charged for townhouse projects. The permit fee is $10 per sprinkler head in townhouses with 25 to 30 heads installed per unit.

The division hopes to add two more employees -- a sprinkler plan examiner-supervisor and a field inspector -- to handle the increased workload. A registered master plumber would have to prepare and file the plan, but systems could be put in by a plumber, a sprinkler fitter or a sprinkler installer. Fitters and installers would have to pass a county certification program. Those proposals will be presented to the county Board of Health when it next meets March 2.

The new sprinkler regulation also means that utilities that provide water for the sprinklers must craft some new policies.

West View Water Authority, which serves customers in 32 municipalities in Allegheny, Beaver and Butler counties, is still fine-tuning its rules, Sharon Bruno, director of administration, said.

West View has decided that fire-suppression systems will not need a separate waterline, she said. A homeowner with a sprinkler system, however, will have to install a back-flow valve, which prevents water in the sprinkler lines from mixing with the fresh water going to the rest of the house. The back-flow valves will have to be tested annually by a plumber and the results sent to the water authority, Ms. Bruno said.

Will my home be flooded?

Some Hollywood movies may have given people a distorted image of how sprinkler systems work, Ross fire marshal John Reubi said. High temperatures in one room will set off a sprinkler head in that room but not flood the entire house, he said.

Sprinkler heads in residential systems usually are set to open at 155 degrees.

"Kitchen smoke that would set off a smoke detector won't trigger the sprinkler head," Mr. Fleming said. "If you burn something in a frying pan, you are not going to set off the sprinkler system."

Some buyers have complained that traditional systems, like those installed in motels, look too institutional.

Cosmetic upgrades are available, Liam Brennan, director of operations for Heartland Homes, said. Sprinkler heads, for example, can be installed to be almost flush with the ceiling.

Mr. Fleming agreed. He recalled a conversation with one homeowner who hadn't even realized his home was outfitted with sprinklers until the system deployed during a small fire.

With thousands of new fire suppression systems likely to be installed across southwestern Pennsylvania in the coming years, the free market will demand many more improvements in the product, Mr. Brennan said.

Opponents haven't given up

Despite setbacks last year in the courts and the state Legislature, Mr. Eichenlaub said his and other builders' groups have not given up their efforts to get a rollback of the sprinkler-system provision.

"I would not say it is likely, but I am hopeful we can halt or delay this mandate," Mr. Eichenlaub said.

In the fall, the state Senate passed a bill that would have pushed back the sprinkler requirement until 2012, but the House took no action on it.

"We are hopeful we have supporters in the new Legislature who will introduce legislation -- as other states have done -- to stop this mandate," he said.

Government officials say there has been no rush to submit sprinkler plans since the new rule took effect on New Year's Day. The main reason is that contractors who applied for building permits by Dec. 31 are not required to install sprinklers even if they don't start construction on single-family homes until this year.

Will home sales be hurt?

Experience in other locations suggests that the sprinkler requirement will not cripple home sales, Mr. Fleming said.

Some Pennsylvania municipalities have long had similar ordinances. They include Upper Merion, in Montgomery County, which has had a sprinkler requirement since 1989. Local officials saw housing starts increased in the two years after the rule was in place, Mr. Fleming said.

Some home builders say they are taking a wait-and-see attitude toward the new requirement.

"It's too soon to say how the market will react," said Mr. Brennan, of Heartland Homes, which is based in the Lawrence neighborhood of Cecil and typically builds more than 400 housing units each year in Allegheny, Washington and Butler counties.

"We are trying to view this requirement as a positive," he said. "Sprinklers are another feature a buyer will get with a new home."

Len Barcousky: or 412-263-1159. First Published February 10, 2011 5:00 AM


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