Residential fire sprinklers are also green

On our front page this month Associate Editor Candace Roulo reports on the slow yet inexorable march toward universal adoption of residential fire sprinklers. Beginning Jan. 1, 2011, the International Code Council’s International Residential Code requires fire sprinklers in new one- and two-family dwellings and townhouses.

On our front page this month Associate Editor Candace Roulo reports on the slow yet inexorable march toward universal adoption of residential fire sprinklers. Beginning Jan. 1, 2011, the International Code Council's International Residential Code requires fire sprinklers in new one- and two-family dwellings and townhouses.

Home sprinklers have many opponents. States in opposition of the residential sprinkler mandate, which have already passed legislation against it, Candace reports, are Alaska, Idaho, Texas, South Dakota, Florida and Georgia.

There are victories for sprinkler proponents. California and Pennsylvania, starting Jan. 1, 2011, will be the first two in the country to require sprinklers in every new home. New Hampshire's residential sprinkle requirement is scheduled to go into effect in 2012, and the State of Iowa is scheduled to mandate the sprinkler requirement effective in 2013. South Carolina is also planning to adopt the requirement, but is delaying implementation until 2014; Maryland has delayed adoption until 2012; and New Jersey has delayed implementation until 2012.

Meanwhile, in Maryland, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake signed a new fire sprinkler law on June 24th. The law requires fire sprinklers in all new one- and two-family residential structures built in Baltimore after July 1, 2010. Baltimore becomes one the largest cities in the U.S. to require residential sprinkler systems in one-and two-family dwellings. Following the announcement from the City of Baltimore, Baltimore County, Maryland adopted the 2009 IRC with the sprinkler requirement on July 6.

Fire sprinklers save lives, which should be reason enough to install them, but now sprinkler advocates can also make the argument that they are green. It stands to reason that a burning house pollutes the atmosphere and firefighters use a lot of water. Now FM Global, in a research study titled, "Environmental Impact of Automatic Fire Sprinklers," quantifies how green they are. FM Global is an international commercial/industrial insurance and risk management firm that uses its engineering expertise to understand the nature and realities of risk.

First of all, the greenest of construction can be negated by a single fire event, FM Global notes. That recycled lumber and Energy Star appliances? They're off to the landfill. The purple pipe has melted. Then there are the greenhouse gases generated by the fire.

To quantify the difference, FM Global set up two large-scale fire test rooms, two identical living rooms. One fire was extinguished with a fire hose, the other by sprinklers. FM Global measured total greenhouse gas production, quantity of water required to extinguish the fire, quality of water runoff, potential impact of wastewater runoff on groundwater and surface water, and mass of materials requiring disposal.

FM Global found that the use of automatic fire sprinklers reduced the peak heat release rate from 13,200 kW to 300 kW and reduced the total energy generated by a factor of 76. The fraction of combustible material consumed in the fire was less than 3% in the sprinklered test and between 62% and 95% in the non-sprinklered test.

The total air emissions generated from the sprinklered test were lower than those from the nonsprinklered test. The use of automatic fire sprinklers reduced the greenhouse gas emissions, consisting of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide, and reported as equivalent mass of carbon dioxide, by 97.8%.

In order to extinguish the fire, the combination of sprinkler and hose stream discharge from the firefighters was 50% less than the hose stream alone. Additional analysis indicates that the reduction in water use achieved by using sprinklers could be as much as 91% if the results are extrapolated to a full-sized home. Nonsprinklered test wastewater was four orders of magnitude higher in alkalinity than the wastewater from the sprinklered test. The nonsprinklered test wastewater represents a serious environmental concern.

Many arguments against residential sprinklers frame it as a matter of personal choice. If I want to take the risk, then it's my decision. We would argue that it's a significant public policy issue. Taxpayers fund the fire service. Burning structures pollute the air and use excessive amounts of water to extinguish. It's not a personal choice to ignore seismic codes or hurricane codes. We don't think residential sprinkler codes should be ignored either.