NEW YORK — Union fire sprinkler contractors have a good reason for entering the home fire sprinkler market:
"Residential fire sprinklers have the largest single growth potential of any area in our industry," said Jamie Reap, vice president/ residential division of United States Fire Protection. "Let's keep it to ourselves by getting involved; otherwise it will likely become plumber's work."
As Reap suggested during his presentation in May here at the 100th anniversary convention of the National Fire Sprinkler Association, NFSA members will face no shortage of competition from others installing sprinklers in homes.
"Our problem in Chicago is that the plumbers will get into it — that's our biggest concern,"-added Gregg Huennekens, president of United States Fire Protection. "They've been working with builders for years. We're the new guys. Plumbers will put in a multi-use system or a standalone system."
Huennekens said that he wouldn't have a problem with plumbers installing sprinklers in homes if they're trained properly and join NFSA.
"We don't want unqualified plumbers doing this," he said.
United States Fire Protection installs sprinkler systems in about 400 single-family homes a year, Reap said, not including townhouses. A key to its success is its operation dedicated to installing sprinklers in homes.
"The most significant change to our normal way of thinking was committing to a separate residential division — recognizing and capitalizing on how this marketplace is unique from commercial," he said. " Many home builders are small and disorganized and work out of their trucks; they don't return phone calls.
"It's not going to work like commercial. It just isn't."
For example, many builders don't issue contracts for sprinkler installations, Reap said. So, his company issues proposals that can be signed and serve as a contract.
Everything must be in writing. The sprinkler contractor must never proceed in an installation without authorization.
"More and more, verbal is meaningless," Reap said.
Careful planning is crucial on these jobs, he noted. Materials must arrive on time, and the sprinkler installation must be coordinated with other subcontractors on the job. The sprinkler contractor must stipulate a minimum water supply. Safety is another concern, and builders must be told to put up guardrails to make the site safe.
The installation usually takes two trips — first, to rough in the system and then to return in three or four months to trim it and put it in service.
"You have to train the builder, no doubt about it," Reap told NFSA members. "He has to know that you have to get in before the Sheetrock. We always follow the HVAC; it's easier that way.
"We like being last on the job. With the small-diameter sprinkler pipe, that's easy to accommodate."
The sprinkler contractor hydro-tests every system. Reap said he would rather find out about problems sooner rather than later.
As part of the commitment to home sprinklers, NFSA members should hire a salesperson, either a man or woman. The residential market is not as technical as commercial jobs, Reap said, and the sales rep will have the technical backup from the expertise already in the company.
Working with other industry associations is another good idea. Reap suggested that contractors contact the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition and establish relationships with fire chiefs and fire inspectors associations.
"Join the National Association of Home Builders," he said. "It's not really a matter of 'Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.' They're our customers, although they do like to be adversarial.
"Convince them that we are not trying to make them look substandard somehow. Instead, we are creating safe homes together. That message seems to go over well."
Huennekens added that he is seeing less resistance from builders on the idea of having fire sprinklers included in their projects.
"The big builders are not fighting it like they used to because they know it's coming," Huennekens said. "The fire chiefs want it. They don't want to send their guys into burning buildings."
Establishing contacts in local municipalities that have recently passed residential sprinkler ordinances, or are about to, would allow NFSA members to penetrate these markets early, Reap said.
"By committing money toward developing a separate group to solely focus on residential, you will get the jump on your competitors," he said. "You will be through the learning curve under less competition."