Multipurpose systems benefit plumbers

Multipurpose residential fire sprinkler systems combine fire sprinklers with a home's plumbing, which means that a plumber can often install both.

Multipurpose residential fire sprinkler systems combine fire sprinklers with a home's plumbing, which means that a plumber can often install both. And with the 2009 International Residential Code requiring sprinklers in every new home, plumbing contactors now have an opportunity to increase their revenue on every one of their residential plumbing jobs.

On September 21, 2008, the International Code Council voted to mandate fire sprinklers in every new one- and two-family home. According to the Residential Fire Sprinklers Market Growth and Labor Demand Analysis published by Fire Smarts LLC, the sprinkler industry will require an additional 7,000 installers to meet this new demand. And although the mandate doesn't take effect until Jan.1, 2011, more than 400 jurisdictions in the U.S. are already requiring residential sprinklers in new-home construction. As builders are required to install sprinklers in their homes, they'll be looking for the systems and the contractors that best meet their needs.

As listed in the National Fire Protection Association 13D standard for the installation of residential fire sprinklers, there are two basic types of home fire sprinkler systems to choose from: multipurpose (combination) and standalone (dedicated). Standalone sprinkler systems are kept separate from a home's plumbing by a backflow prevention device and are usually installed by a commercial sprinkler contractor. Multipurpose systems, on the other hand, deliberately integrate sprinklers into a home's cold-water plumbing, which eliminates the need for a costly backflow preventer and enables the plumber, who's already on the jobsite, to also install the fire sprinklers.

Advantages of multipurpose systems

For the homeowner, a multipurpose system means no backflow preventer and/or check valve, which eliminates the maintenance and inspection costs of those devices. A multipurpose system also offers homeowners peace of mind, since each time they turn on a cold-water plumbing fixture, they know fresh water is also available to their fire sprinklers.

For the builder, specifying a multipurpose system means that the trusted, licensed plumber can also install the fire sprinkler system while on the jobsite. This means that the builder doesn't have to worry about establishing a new relationship with another contractor and doesn't have to be concerned about scheduling another trade on the job.

For the plumbing contractor, whether installing cross linked polyethylene or CPVC plumbing, a multipurpose system means an opportunity to make more money on every job by basically extending the plumbing into the ceiling and attaching fire sprinklers.

A straightforward installation process

Multipurpose fire sprinkler systems use the same tubing (usually PEX or CPVC), fittings and tools that a plumbing contractor already uses to plumb a house. So, with some thorough and comprehensive basic training, the plumber can make more money on every job.

With a multipurpose system, the general installation process is straightforward. House plans and some details on the home's incoming water supply are provided by the contractor or home builder to a qualified sprinkler designer. First, the designer will use hydraulic calculation software to determine the layout of the fire sprinklers. Then tubing (usually PEX or CPVC) is securely run in the ceilings to the designated sprinkler locations and mount threaded sprinkler fittings where indicated by the sprinkler plan. The next step is to thread and properly tighten the sprinklers into the fittings. Then tee into the sprinkler tubing and drop down to feed the cold-water plumbing fixtures. Last, but not least, a simple flow test is performed to confirm, for the inspector, that the system is operating as designed.

Although the basic process is pretty straightforward, every fire sprinkler installation can be unique, requiring different solutions. You may need to take into account certain considerations such as ceiling obstructions that may interfere with a sprinkler spray pattern or insulating the tubing in cold-weather locations. In any case, your fire sprinkler layout designer and your system manufacturer can help you with any questions and concerns. And a system flow test after completing the job ensures the system is operating as designed.

In most states, it's quite simple for a plumber to become a licensed residential fire sprinkler contractor. In some cases, however, licensing rules can make it very challenging for a plumber to install fire sprinkler systems. In these states, your options are to either meet the requirements to become a licensed fire sprinkler contractor, or work to change the licensing rules. In all cases, be sure to check with your local and state authorities to understand your jurisdiction's licensing requirements and ensure that you are allowed to install sprinkler systems.

With lower material cost, ease of installation and reduced maintenance requirements, multipurpose systems have the advantages needed to become the preferred system type in residential fire sprinkler installation. And, with multipurpose systems supplying both the domestic water and the fire sprinkler water, the plumbing contractor is the logical choice to professionally install these systems.

This column concludes a five part series about residential fire sprinkler opportunity for plumbing contractors. Fire Smarts LLC, in partnership with the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors Association is developing resources and training programs specifically tailored for plumbing contractors to enter the residential fire sprinkler market. Additional information is available at: www.FireSmarts.com.

Jayson Drake is a Fire Smarts Faculty member and senior product manager at Uponor's North American fire safety business. He has an engineering degree from Iowa State University, a MBA from the University of Minnesota, and is actively involved in educational and training efforts to support installing contractors.