Pa. residential fire sprinkler mandate is up for consideration

March 30, 2011
HARRISBURG, PA. — Last month the Pennsylvania House of Representatives approved legislation, H.B. 377, to repeal the residential fire sprinkler mandate in the state’s construction code.

HARRISBURG, PA. — Last month the Pennsylvania House of Representatives approved legislation, H.B. 377, to repeal the residential fire sprinkler mandate in the state’s construction code. The bill would exclude all new one- and two-family residences from the sprinkler requirement that became part of the Uniform Construction Code, effective Jan. 1, 2011. The measure is now headed to the Pennsylvania Senate for consideration.

Pennsylvania was one of the first two states in the country to require sprinklers in every new home based on the International Code Council (ICC), mandating the installation of residential fire sprinklers in all new one- and two-family residences, including townhouses in the 2009 International Residential Code (IRC). In December 2009, the Pennsylvania Review Commission voted to adopt the IRC and its residential sprinkler requirement, updating the state’s Uniform Construction Code.

State Rep. Bill Keller (D-Phila.) voted against the recent legislation that would eliminate the mandate, and during the debate, he offered an amendment that would make it easier for local municipalities to enact their own ordinances requiring automatic fire sprinkler systems on the local level if the code is not mandated on the state level. But the amendment was defeated 73-125. He also asked lawmakers to vote to send the bill back to the House Labor and Industry Committee, of which he is Democratic chairman, to be fully vetted through public hearings because no hearings have been held on the issue. His request was also defeated.

Keller said the bill, introduced by Rep. Garth Everett (R-Lycoming), would weaken public safety standards considered necessary by building safety experts.

"This is first and foremost a public safety issue," said Keller. "I know there will be a tragedy in the future because of the actions we took. Those who want to repeal this safety code have something to gain financially from its demise. The people this safety code is designed to protect will lose — possibly their life."

John A. Viniello, president of the National Fire Sprinkler Association (NFSA), said the mandate should be in place.

“California has adopted it,” said Viniello. “There are hundreds if not thousands of local municipalities that have adopted it, and there are over 70 communities in the suburbs of Chicago that have adopted it, requiring sprinklers in homes.

“The homebuilders have bought the legislature in Pennsylvania,” continued Viniello. “Everyone who voted to repeal that law is putting politics before the safety of people in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania. We are going to continue to fight them at every single turn.”

According to Keller, the Pennsylvania Builders Association mounted a huge effort in 2008 to establish a Uniform Construction Code Advisory Council to help head off the state's adoption of building code requirements that may be unfavorable to builders. This council was approved by the General Assembly as Act 106 of 2008 and is made up of 19 industry professionals, appointed by the governor, who can choose to adopt or deny all of part of triennial code revisions.

Keller said the UCC Advisory Council, on two separate occasions in 2009, voted to keep the residential sprinkler requirement in the state’s code. The sprinkler code also has been upheld by Commonwealth Court.

Jeffrey M. Shapiro, executive director, IRC Fire Sprinkler Coalition said that the coalition is disappointed in the direction the legislation is taking in Pennsylvania.

“The practice of states ‘cherry picking’ requirements out of the national codes based on politics sets a dangerous trend, not only from the perspective of safety, but also with respect to liability, and although a state may amend the home fire sprinkler requirement out of their minimum code, designers and builders may remain on the hook from a liability perspective because the ‘national standard of care’ continues to specify fire sprinklers,” said Shapiro.

“Builders associations nationwide have publicly acknowledged the availability of fire sprinkler systems for new homes and that these systems have the ability to save lives and protect property,” added Shapiro. “Therefore, in a lawsuit following a fire fatality or other loss, failure to have included a sprinkler system in a home built after Jan. 1, 2011, regardless of minimum code requirements, may be deemed as deliberate indifference to the protection of life or property on the part of the designer and the builder with associated liability.”

The cost of sprinklers

According to a commentary published in The Times Leader by Peter Restaino, chairman of the Building Industry Association of Northeastern Pennsylvania’s Legislative Committee, a sprinkler system should continue to be an option, but not a mandate.

“The estimated sprinkler cost for a 2,000-sq.ft. house is about $5,000, excluding system design work and backup pumps to deal with power outages,” explained Restaino in his commentary. “And, it gets more costly in rural areas without public water supplies.”

According to Shapiro, with respect to Pennsylvania, organizations representing Pennsylvania's home building industry publicly misrepresented to the Pennsylvania legislature that the addition of fire sprinklers in new home construction would negatively affect the new housing market and slow the economic recovery.

“This simply isn't factual because builders have the ability to adjust new home construction features such that fire sprinklers can be incorporated into a home at no net cost to the consumer,” said Shapiro. “It is unfortunate that many builders don’t recognize the tremendous marketing advantage that fire sprinkler systems provide for new homes versus existing properties, particularly when selling to families with young children and older Americans. Still, some get it. I've personally seen builders' sales literature for some communities that features ‘state-of-the-art fire sprinkler system’ as the lead item under safety and security.

Viniello noted that people pay more for granite counter tops then they will ever pay for a sprinkler system.

“I use 1% of the cost of a home for the cost of a sprinkler system,” explained Viniello. “Homes today are costing $500,000 to $700,000. It’s really not that expensive … NFPA quoted a stat that it’s about $1.60 a square foot. Plus, you get a discount on home insurance. I get almost a 20% discount on my homeowners insurance because I have a sprinkler system in my house. That’s another factor that is usually not pointed out.”

Even though many builders are against the mandate and would like to see the repeal passed, there are some that realize sprinkler systems are not going away.

“Based on the feedback I've received during Uponor’s educational seminars, I believe that many builders also acknowledge that it's inevitable that fire sprinklers will be in every new home (much like airbags in cars),” explained Jayson Drake, senior product manager, Fire Safety, Uponor North America. “Therefore, regardless of the mandate, builders are actively trying to determine what type of sprinkler system is best for them, their contractors and their homebuyers.”

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