Residential fire sprinkler battle continues: now states decide

Aug. 6, 2010
CHICAGO — California and Pennsylvania, starting Jan. 1, 2011, will require sprinklers in every new home. Other states, however, plan to adopt the residential fire sprinkler mandate but delay its implementation, while others oppose it.

CHICAGO —California and Pennsylvania, starting Jan. 1, 2011, will be 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). Other states, however, plan to adopt the residential fire sprinkler mandate but delay its implementation, while other states still oppose it.

The California Building Standards Commission voted in January of this year by a margin of 10-0 in favor of adopting the 2010 California Residential Code, which includes the 2009 IRC as established by the ICC in September 2008; and in December 2009, the Pennsylvania Review Commission voted to adopt the IRC and its residential sprinkler requirement, updating the state’s Uniform Construction Code, making the mandate effective Jan. 1, 2011.

Delaying adoption

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 implantation until 2012.

New York State is adopting the 2006 IRC version for its 2010 State Residential Code, and it is undecided if it will look at the 2009 or 2012 version next, according to Raymond J. Andrews, assistant director for code development, State of New York, Department of State.

“New York is always a cycle behind,” said Dominick Kasmauskas, New York Regional Manager of the National Fire Sprinkler Association.“By the time the ICC puts together a code, and committees are formed by the state, and go through the document to modify it with amendments, which in New York is heavily amended, and get it signed by the governor, it’s usually two or three years behind. The 2010 New York code probably won’t have anything in it about residential fire sprinklers.”

The New York State Codes Council had a task force, of which Kasmauskas was a member, that composed a Residential Fire Sprinkler Report covering New York State issues that was published June 2009. The task force gathered facts, information and data as it relates to the installation of residential sprinkler systems in one- and two-family homes and reported its findings to the state’s Code Council.

“It will be through the code council process that it is decided if this will be adopted or not in the future,” said Kasmauskas. “The codes council is supposed to be discussing the report this September since they wanted more information, which they had employees find through research. This September they will discuss if they want to do something with the report.”

Opposing the mandate

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

“The backdoor inclusion of the anti-residential sprinkler legislation was a tremendous disservice to fire services, municipalities and the people of the State of Texas,” said John H. Kauffman III, who is on NFSA’s board of directors. “At a time when the people of many states of this great Union are increasingly frustrated by the federal government’s intrusion into what should be the purview of the states, Governor Perry and the State of Texas have done the same thing by virtually eliminating ‘Home Rule’ in our state. Home fires do not have to ever claim another life. The technology exists. It is my belief that this is an issue that will be pushed to the back burner this next legislative session in Texas due to major pressing issues of our time.”

“On one side of the political battle is the National Association of Home Builders and builders, and on the other side is the fire service, fire marshals and fire chiefs,” said Jayson Drake, senior product manager, Fire Safety, Uponor North America. “Sometimes the fire services on a state-wide level like in California and Pennsylvania win, but in other states the builders can convince, usually through legislation, that fire sprinklers mandates are not right for their market quite yet.

“When builders lobby and convince legislatures and the government to pass laws saying that you can’t enact a sprinkler mandate, their argument is that it will add costs to homes and because of the economic times this is not the right time to make such a mandate,” added Drake.

The IRC requires fire sprinklers because construction products used in today's home provides significantly less time to escape than older construction materials, according to Buddy Dewar, vice president of regional operations at NFSA. Underwriters Laboratory tests show buildings collapse in less than four minutes using engineered wood products and other lightweight construction material — products that save the homebuilder 40% of their labor costs — compared to 20 minutes using legacy construction materials.

“Because of the intense lobby by state home builders associations, some states have ruled it is acceptable for homebuilders to build new homes in non-compliance with the national model construction and safety codes; a trial bar relief act,” said Dewar. “Many have delayed the process because of economic conditions and devastated housing markets. Sooner or later all states will have adopted the fire sprinkler requirement as it is the right thing to do to protect the public.”

“The best path is to figure ways to minimize costs of building a safe home,” added Dewar.

According to Matthew Kuwatch, global business director for BlazeMaster Fire Sprinkler Systems, it has been proven in those communities where fire sprinkler systems are already required that costs have actually come down as a result of increased business and more contractors entering the market.

Last month in Michigan, a public hearing regarding the adoption of the 2009 residential building code for the state was held, and fire services had the opportunity to state their opposition to removing the residential sprinkler mandate and request that the requirement be placed back into the state’s residential code.

The fire sprinkler requirement was taken out of the code last year when the Michigan Building Code Review Committee voted 10 to 2 against including the mandatory sprinkler requirement in the 2009 Michigan Residential Code. The code change, removing the proposed mandatory fire sprinklers requirement from the next edition of the state building code, was submitted by Habitat for Humanity of Michigan.

“Habitat for Humanity of Michigan isn't opposed to residential fire sprinklers,” said Debra Lashbrook, communications director, Habitat for Humanity of Michigan. “We do, however, oppose a national mandate that forces installation of a fire sprinkler system into every new home. Habitat already includes a significant number of safety features in every home it builds.”

Another reason Habitat for Humanity of Michigan opposes a residential fire sprinkler mandate is because it would reduce the number of houses Habitat builds and the number of low-income families it can serve.

“Requiring sprinklers will add significant cost to new home construction, particularly in rural areas where larger wells, water pipes and other upgrades may be needed to accommodate the sprinkler systems (1.5 million Michigan families use private wells),” said Lashbrook. “Habitat for Humanity of Michigan estimates this could add $4,000 to $6,000 to the cost of construction for homes on municipal water and over $11,000 for homes on wells.”

According to Lee Schwartz, executive vice president for Government Relations, Michigan Association of Home Builders, besides the MAHB and Habitat for Humanity of Michigan, the coalition against mandatory sprinklers include, among others, numerous affordable housing providers, the Michigan Association of Counties, the Community Economic Development Association of Michigan, and a plethora of local government officials including building inspectors and even two fire service personnel.

According to Drake, even though HFH on a national level is opposed to mandates because they think it will negatively affect building their homes, Uponor is installing its product in HFH homes in Austin, Texas.

According to Drake, even though HFH on a national level is opposed to mandates because they think it will negatively affect building their homes, Uponor is installing its product in HFH homes in Austin, Texas.

“The same thing applies to the builder community,” said Drake. “The NAHB may be against sprinklers, but if I explain to a builder one-on-one that this is an upgrade that can be sold, like granite or stainless, then this isn’t as scary as it seems.”

Educational outreach

Drake oversees a team of several Uponor employees that travel to jurisdictions, giving seminars to educate communities and stakeholders such as water authorities, builder organizations, and fire officials about the residential fire sprinkler requirement in the 2009 IRC.

“Uponor’s position is we want the opportunity to educate people, we want them to be aware of their options and make sure everyone has the facts,” said Drake, and there are a lot of misinformed scare tactics being used unintentionally in many cases.”

Drake and his team have been focusing on California and Pennsylvania, which are both adopting the mandated requirement the beginning of January 2011.

“There are other states that will adopt the mandate next year, so we need to make sure they are prepared,” said Drake. “We tend to concentrate on areas that need this information now, to make sure code adoption goes smoothly, but we also cover the areas that we believe will adopt in 2012. No one wants to be surprised when this happens.

“In states that are trying to decide, we give them information, facts and options,” added Drake. “In states that have already adopted we provide information about how to execute and implement the mandate they have chosen.”

In preparation for the projected increase in demand, BlazeMaster Fire Sprinkler Systems has also increased its outreach efforts to builders around the country and has developed training programs directed toward contractors, builders, engineers and building officials.

“Our BlazeMaster fire sprinkler systems team has been a long-standing proponent of proper training and the implementation of a best practices approach to the installation of residential fire sprinkler systems,” said Kuwatch. “We are continuing that tradition with our outreach to and educational programs for builders.”

About the Author

Candace Roulo

Candace Roulo, senior editor of CONTRACTOR and graduate of Michigan State University’s College of Communication Arts & Sciences, has 15 years of industry experience in the media and construction industries. She covers a variety of mechanical contracting topics, from sustainable construction practices and policy issues affecting contractors to continuing education for industry professionals and the best business practices that contractors can implement to run successful businesses.      

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