Sprinklers douse townhouse fire with minor damage

BY ROBERT P. MADER OF CONTRACTORS STAFF DURANGO, COLO. Former firefighter Gretchen Schmeisser watched in disbelief as flames from her overheated van threatened to destroy her three-level Colorado townhouse. Her shock soon turned to excitement as she realized that two of the home's fire sprinklers had activated and were helping control the heat and flames. "If we did not have sprinklers in this garage,

BY ROBERT P. MADER
OF CONTRACTORS STAFF

DURANGO, COLO. — Former firefighter Gretchen Schmeisser watched in disbelief as flames from her overheated van threatened to destroy her three-level Colorado townhouse. Her shock soon turned to excitement as she realized that two of the home's fire sprinklers had activated and were helping control the heat and flames.

"If we did not have sprinklers in this garage, the entire townhome building — all seven homes — would have been lost to this fire," said Jerry Pope, partner of Timberline Builders and one of the developers of the 71-unit community, located in southwest Colorado. Pope credits Doug Lenberg, president of Fire Safe Homes and a fire protection industry consultant, with identifying an affordable and efficient solution. Pope, Lenberg and plumbing contractor Bradford P. Blake of Blake Mechanical selected a combination fire sprinkler and domestic cold-water system.

At the time of the installation, Lenberg was working for plumbing wholesaler Dahl Plumbing.

The municipality asked Timberline to install sprinklers in all rear-facing units, or about half the development, since firetrucks and equipment could not easily access these homes.

A multipurpose system, such as the one Lenberg recommended, combines the cold-water plumbing and the fire sprinkler system into one. Water continually circulates to the fire sprinklers each time an occupant uses a cold-water plumbing fixture. This ensures fresh water is always available.

These combination systems can cost as much as 15% less than stand-alone systems because of the reduced labor, a systems manufacturer said. Since these systems are fed by a home's domestic water supply, there is no need for check valves, backflow preventers or a separate water meter, further cutting installation time and costs.

Blake said he learned about combination systems supplied by Uponor in 2001. He went to Apple Valley, Minn., for the factory training session, installed a system in his own home and has been installing them ever since.

"We probably do 50 of those a year and depending on whether we do a big project we may even do up to a 100 a year," Blake said.

Once the developer saw that the sprinkler system was affordable and installed easily, Pope and business partner Emil Wanatka decided to incorporate fire protection in each of Parkside Terrace's 71 units.

To install a combination system, Blake runs the service line into the home to manifolds on each occupied floor of a dwelling. The vast majority of services lines are 1 in., he said, although a handful might be 3/4 in. Branch lines run from the manifolds to the sprinkler heads. Blake noted that Uponor has a patent on the four-port sprinkler so each sprinkler has water going in or out from four sides with 1⁄2-in. PEX tubing. The PEX lines are installed in the ceilings, he explained, and when he needs to supply water to a fixture, he pulls a 1⁄2-in. PEX line from one of the four ports of a sprinkler. One sprinkler can supply just one toilet, sink, shower or other water-consuming fixture.

"There's no shortage of lines to use," Blake said.

He installed 1,300 linear ft. of 1⁄2-in. pipe in each unit at the townhouse development. Blake did the Parkside Terrace job for $1.25/sq. ft., but he's now charging $1.50/sq. ft. because his costs for practically everything have gone up.

Blake noted that many subdivisions in his area, including his own, now require residential sprinklers, either because they're remote or Colorado winter weather makes it difficult for firetrucks to get to them on time.

Blake Mechanical also installed all the bathrooms. Most units, typically 1,600 to 1,800 sq. ft., have 2 1/2 baths with a powder room. The contractor installed Moen and Kohler products. Most water heaters are 50-gal. gas-fired State Industries products, although a few homeowners opted for electric water heaters.

The cause of the Parkside Terrace fire is still undetermined, but Durango Fire Marshal Tom Kaufman believes the fire stemmed from the 1990 Volkswagen Westfalia van's engine overheating in the desert climate.

"The fire originated in the van's engine, but we were not able to determine the exact cause since the engine compartment was totally destroyed," said Kaufman, a 29-year firefighting veteran. "Damage to the home was limited to the garage, thanks in large part to the fire sprinklers, which controlled the flames before they could build deadly heat and smoke, typical of a gasoline fire."

Kaufman said the fire in Schmeisser's 1,600-sq.-ft., two-bedroom townhouse burned so hot that the outline of a clothes hanger was imprinted on the metal garage door leading into the house.

During reconstruction following the fire, Pope was amazed to discover that the wiring above the garage did not melt from the heat, nor did the insulation catch fire.

To reduce the likelihood of extending a fire's reach to adjacent rooms or floors, the sprinklers worked with another fire-protection code: the requirement of 5⁄8-in. Sheetrock on all the townhouse's ceilings and common walls instead of the standard 1⁄2 in.

While there was light smoke damage to the upper two floors of the unit, Kaufman noted that there was no heat damage. Amazingly, Schmeisser slept in her home that very same evening.

TAGS: Piping