Contractormag 2872 Sprinkler2

Bright future for residential fire protection

Feb. 9, 2016
Several states have formally adopted mandatory sprinkler provisions within building codes. In addition to the added safety, fire sprinkler systems are growing more cost-effective. Sprinklering a new home was once considered to be a prohibitive added cost, but demand and new materials are driving down the price.
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Modern construction techniques have evolved to become more quick, reliable and cost effective. A brand new modern home is now more efficiently realized than ever before, and it’s part of why legislators across the country are taking increasingly serious steps to protect those homes and the families who live in them.

The simple smoke detector is no longer enough for home fire protection. While lightweight and composite wood brings efficiency and cost savings to newly built houses, it has been shown that these materials may burn up to three times faster than traditional building materials like lumber.

As a result of these findings, along with evidence that fire sprinklers can help save lives and reduce property damage, residential fire sprinkler systems are beginning to become a required component of newly constructed one- or two-family homes.

Several states have formally adopted mandatory sprinkler provisions within their building codes, including California, Maryland and Washington, D.C., possibly setting the stage for similar sprinkler requirements in many more states in the near future. As these new steps toward enhancing residential fire safety are taken, it’s worth recounting how we got here, and looking to where we’re headed.

Necessity of fire protection

In the past 20 years, lightweight construction materials, including composite wood, have become standard in modern residential home building for their efficiency and eco-friendliness.

However, growing concern among firefighters over the structural performance of composite or lightweight wood under fire conditions spurred a 2008 study by Underwriters Laboratory (UL) that confirmed what had been suspected: structures constructed of lightweight materials were found in fire tests to collapse in just six minutes, compared to 18 minutes for structures made from traditional materials, such as lumber in the same tests.

Results like those offer hard evidence for fire sprinkler systems in new homes. It has been proven that sprinklers can significantly delay the spread of flames, increasing the amount of time a family has to exit a burning home and helping stem the flames until firefighters arrive on scene. In rural or remote areas specifically, firefighter response time can be longer than average making homes in these areas susceptible to greater damage.

In fact, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) estimates that the installation of a fire sprinkler system reduces the risk of dying in a house fire by 95 percent — a 50 percent increase over smoke detectors alone.

There’s also a conservationist argument to be made for the necessity of residential fire sprinklers —research shows that a home fire sprinkler system uses on average only a small fraction of the water required to fully suppress a fire at an unsprinklered home.

A 2011 study, commissioned by the Fire Protection Research Foundation, concluded that total water demand could be reduced by about 47 percent in communities where homes are fully sprinklered. It’s a significant potential impact, and in areas where draughts are common, even more important.

Growing adoption

A critical milestone in the growing acceptance and use of residential fire sprinkler systems came in 2006, when the International Code Council (ICC) revised its International Residential Code (IRC) to include an optional provision necessitating the inclusion of fire sprinkler systems in newly constructed one- and two-family dwellings. This meant that states or municipalities adopting the IRC needed to adopt the provision for fire sprinkler systems, or else explicitly note that it was not adopting the provision, effectively acknowledging a crucial missing element of fire protection for new residential construction.

Change came again in 2009, when the IRC fire sprinkler provision was made mandatory for states and jurisdictions that chose to adopt the IRC without modification. The impact has been substantial. Recently, Maryland’s Department of Housing and Community Development adopted the 2015 IRC, including its requirement for sprinkler systems in new residential homes. Additionally, Maryland state law prohibits individual municipal codes from excising or weakening the sprinkler requirement, marking a significant victory for sprinkler advocates.

Continuing push

Mandatory sprinkler requirements in California, Maryland and Washington, D.C., are just the beginning. Recently there has been activity in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Washington for similar legislation.

In addition to the added safety they offer residents, fire sprinkler systems are growing more and more cost-effective. Sprinklering a new home was once considered to be a prohibitive added cost, but demand and new materials are driving down the price.

According to a cost study for home fire sprinklers commissioned by the NFPA, the average nationwide cost per sprinklered square foot in residential homes as of 2013 is $1.35. The study further found that costs in states with statewide regulation — California and Maryland — is significantly lower.

In light of these trends, it benefits today’s builders in the residential space to be familiar with fire sprinkler systems and the proper way to incorporate them into their business. The design and installation of fire sprinkler systems is a careful and skilled trade, and is best accomplished by partnering with certified fire sprinkler contractors.

Saving lives and property

Residential fire sprinklers have been proven to save lives and mitigate property damage and their growing acceptance and prevalence can only be a good thing for homeowners across the country. For builders and contractors, familiarizing with the regulatory climate is an investment in the future of the residential construction industry. More than that — it’s about enhancing the safety of families and homes, protecting lives and property from the dangers of home fires.

For up-to-date information on the state of residential fire sprinkler requirements in the U.S., or for further information on how to become an advocate for residential fire sprinklers, visit

Mark Knurek is the Marketing Manager in the America’s for BlazeMaster Fire Sprinkler Systems of The Lubrizol Corporation.

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