Outcry for Mandating Sprinklers in New Homes Not Coming from the Public

Friday, December 4, 2015

There’s nothing preventing anyone who owns, or is buying, a home from installing a sprinkler system to stop a fire in his castle.

Have you ever known anyone who did that?
Similarly, anyone hiring a contractor to build a new home can ask for a sprinkler system and the contractor will install one.

Have you ever known anyone who asked a builder to do that?
I haven’t studied the issue in depth, but it seems fairly obvious why Americans avoid home sprinkler systems: the cost.

The National Fire Protection Association says the average cost of putting a sprinkler system in a new house is $1.35 per square foot, while the Home Builders and Remodelers Association of Massachusetts says it’s more like  $4.02 per square foot.
According to CNN Money, the average size of a new home in the U.S. in 2013 was 2,598 square feet.  Multiply 2,598 by $1.35 and then by $4.02; you get, respectively, $3,507.30 and $10,443.96.  The average of those sums is $6,975.63

Proponents of home sprinkler systems, who include virtually every organization there is for firefighters and fire chiefs, point out that (a) homes with sprinklers cost only 1% to 2% more than those without, and (b) annual insurance premiums for homes with sprinklers are significantly lower than for those without, in some cases as much as 20% or 25% lower.
No one is really opposed to home sprinkler systems per se.  However, there are many who oppose efforts to make them mandatory in new homes on the grounds that (a) the costs of adding sprinklers would keep many first-time homebuyers out of the market, and (b) the increase in residential safety brought about by sprinklers is too small to justify both the cost and the depressing effect it would have on home-buying.  (Housing has always been a major component of the American economy.) 

There are at least two bills pending before the Massachusetts legislature that would give cities and towns the option of requiring sprinkler systems in newly built one- and two-family homes: House Bill 2089, An Act Relative to Enhanced Fire Protection in One and Two Family Dwellings, and House Bill 2095, An Act to Prevent Deaths by Fire.  Both were heard by the Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security on June 18, and both remain before that committee.  The committee has yet to issue a report on either bill. 
Firefighters are intimately associated with the risks and results of house fires.  They know what it’s like to carry a badly burned child out of a still-smoldering building and to watch helplessly as a raging house fire prevents them from rescuing an elderly person trapped inside.  They regularly have to face mortal danger themselves inside burning buildings that might never have got burning if there had been a sprinkler system on premises.   It’s not hard to see why the men and women on the front lines of public safety are pushing for sprinkler system mandates. 

As professionals who choose to spend their lives risking their lives to protect and save others, firefighters are among the most idealistic and courageous individuals you will ever know.   They deserve to be heeded respectfully when they say, Yes, sprinkler systems are expensive, but the cost is nothing compared to the value of the lives they save.  And how do you put a price tag on a human life?
Nevertheless, I think they’re wrong when they go down the sprinkler mandate path, even if it’s only leading, at present, toward giving cities and towns the option of mandating them in new one- and two-family construction.

First, I agree with those who say House Bills 2089 and 2095 would set a bad precedent and cause problems in the construction sector by fracturing the hard-earned uniformity of the state building code.  Richard Crowley, chair of the state Board of Building Regulations and Standards, argued this point on June 18.  “I am a proponent of a unified building code that is fully integrated across the state,” said Crowley, a licensed builder. “For the 40 years the code has been in existence, it has worked very well from the user point of view.”
Second, I believe the home builders and realtors of Massachusetts are correct when they say the costs of sprinkler systems will discourage first-time home buyers, reduce the rate of home ownership, erect  new barriers to families trying to make it into the middle class, and drain energy from the Massachusetts economy.  Testimony submitted to the Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security indicates that, for every $1,000 added to the cost of a new home in Massachusetts, 2,500 more persons/families cannot afford to buy a home.

Third, the communities most likely to opt for a sprinkler mandate, if such an option was created by law, would be the wealthier ones, as local decision-makers reason, correctly, that well-to-do buyers will  just shrug at, and pay, the higher costs involved.  Wealthy suburban communities would thus become more costly, more exclusive.  Presumably, this is the kind of situation a uniform statewide building code is designed to discourage.  The code’s now the same for everyone, no matter where they reside; every Massachusetts resident is equal before it. 
Fourth, anything that could make housing more expensive in Massachusetts, which has, in the eastern part of the state, some of the highest housing costs in the nation, is not a welcome development.  We should be mindful that housing affordability is tied to income inequality, one of the biggest problems our society faces.

Five, home sprinkler systems do not seem to offer significantly greater protection than that provided by a much cheaper, easier-to-install alternative: hard-wired smoke detectors.  Ben Fierro, an attorney representing the Homebuilders and Remodelers Association, has noted that “Single-family homes under Massachusetts’s modern standards are required to have a hard-wired smoke detector.  With these in place, survival from serious fires is 99.62%.  With sprinklers in place, this number goes up to 99.82%.”  Referring to a calculation made earlier in this post, I can’t help but ask: How many homeowners are willing to spend $6,975.63 to improve their chances of surviving a house fire by two-tenths of a percentage point?  Here’s a follow-up: Would a local government be morally justified in requiring a family to spend $6,975.63 to improve their chances of surviving a house fire by that small a margin?
Six, just because a public safety improvement is possible doesn’t mean public officials ought to mandate private expenditures to achieve it.  We could reduce traffic fatalities by requiring all drivers and passengers to wear state-of-the-art helmets when they’re in a moving vehicle, but no one is seriously calling for universal, in-vehicle helmet use.

Lastly, I have some qualms about firefighters being in a position to benefit financially, down the line, from their legislative advocacy, which is often undertaken while they’re on the clock, even though that advocacy may spring from the noblest of intentions.  Residential sprinkler systems require at least annual inspections to make sure they are not leaking and will function properly in the event of a fire.  In every community I’m aware of, the local fire chief is responsible for administering the sprinkler system checks, and inspection fees are charged to the private citizens and companies who own the residential structures in question.  Firefighters, being the most knowledgeable persons in any locality on the science and mechanics of fire suppression, are the most logical (not to say most available) persons to conduct such inspections.  If local-option home sprinkler mandates come to pass, home sprinkler inspections will necessarily increase, as will the amounts collected through inspection fees.  Opportunities to earn private-detail, off-hours pay through inspections will almost certainly grow.








Jim Pauley said...

I have read your recent blog post “Outcry for Mandating Sprinklers in New Homes Not Coming from the Public,” which unfortunately included a number of inaccuracies and misstatements. I’m correcting and clarifying those statements in the hopes of giving you and your readers a more accurate portrayal of home fire sprinklers and reasons why my organization staunchly supports these life-saving devices.

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) does not only back the installation of fire sprinklers in new homes for their ability to significantly reduce the risk of dying in home fires; sprinklers are also a requirement found in every model building code used in the U.S. Most Americans wouldn’t dare get into
a new vehicle if it lacked seat belts and airbags, since my guess is they would consider it a substandard vehicle lacking all of the modern features developed to keep them safe. Living in a new home without sprinklers is synonymous to entering a new car devoid of these features. No matter how many
homebuilding advances have been made in safeguarding residents from the atrocities of fire, constructing homes without home fire sprinklers—a code requirement—is creating substandard housing.

While you “believe the home builders and Realtors of Massachusetts are correct when they say the cost of sprinklers will discourage first-time homebuyers,” I urge you look beyond Massachusetts for some actual case studies. Fire sprinklers have been required in all of California’s new homes since 2011. Per a
recent article in The New York Times, the state is experiencing a significant housing boom—proof that fire sprinklers can be installed cost-effectively without negatively impacting the housing market. In Maryland, another state requiring fire sprinklers, the average cost to sprinkler its homes hovers around
the national average of $1.35 per sprinklered square foot.

Your post also argues the moral justification for the cost of installing fire sprinklers in new homes. I’m wondering if that justification is any comfort to the families of the approximately 2,500 people who die each year in the U.S. from home fires. Home is still the place where the majority of fire deaths (eight out
of every 10) is occurring, according to our research. You are correct in praising smoke alarms for their ability in alerting residents of fire, but to say sprinklers “do not seem to offer significantly greater protection” is false. Smoke alarms do not have a sprinkler’s power to immediately suppress today’s
home fires, which can become deadly only minutes after a smoke alarm alerts a family of a fire.

As you also note, two legislative bills introduced this year would give Massachusetts towns the option to sprinkler its new homes, but your notion that firefighters who support the cause will financially benefit
from this requirement is amiss. If fire sprinklers are installed in accordance to our standard, NFPA 13D, Installation of Sprinkler Systems in One- and Two-Family Dwellings and Manufactured Homes, annual inspections are not required. Annual tests to assure a home’s sprinklers are functioning correctly can be
easily done for free by the homeowner.

NFPA joins other members of the Massachusetts Fire Sprinkler Coalition in supporting any legislative action that bolsters the use of home fire sprinklers. Perpetuating the many myths associated with home
fire sprinklers is taking a step backwards, fails to place value on saving a human life, and is missing the benefit of this simple technology that has been protecting lives and property for more than a century.

I urge you to visit FireSprinklerInitiative.org/Massachusetts for more information.

Jim Pauley
President and CEO, National Fire Protection Association

Warren Peterson said...

Mr. Hahesy
As a Fire Service Professional with more that 35 years of experience I would like to take an opportunity to add a couple of points to Mr. Pauley's Comments.

One: Having worked as a fire officer in the City of Fontana California which has had a residential fire sprinkler requirement for more than 20 years, I can assure you that there were no required inspections for the residential systems. On occasion, firefighters would assist homeowners if they had a question about the systems, but this was done as a courtesy.

Two: The cost for residential sprinklers has dropped significantly over the last several years due to changes in the construction techniques used. In California, we regularly see the per foot cost lower than the nation average probably due to the frequency of installation.

Three: In your argument you list the only benefit to sprinkler installation as a two tenths percent increase in survivability. In reality the benefit is much greater. Since I entered the fire service the conditions firefighters face have changed drastically. I encourage you to watch the video comparison or read the actual study conducted by Underwriters Laboratory on fires involving modern furnishings. When I started in the fire service a typical home fire would take about 30 minutes to transition to flashover, or full room involvement. With modern furnishings this now occurs in less than 5 minutes. There is not a fire department in the nation that can be at your home, suppressing the fire in less than five minutes. Add to that the homes now use modern engineering in the design with lighter weight structural members, oriented strand board, engineered trusses,and new adhesives. All of these are intended to build stronger houses at lower cost, but none of them are designed to withstand fire conditions and actually cause much more rapid structural failure. Residential Fire Sprinklers help to level the field. Without fire sprinklers you are saying you are willing to live in a home built largely of cardboard, with furnishings made from gasoline. Smoke detectors will probably allow you and your family escape, but everything you own will probably be lost to the fire. Most people I know would gladly pay a few thousand dollars more for sprinklers to protect their family heirlooms, pictures, and valuables.

In your comments you correctly state that someone building a custom home can specify fire sprinklers be added, but very few actually understand the current costs and benefits. The fire service nationally needs to do a much better job of educating the public of the current risks. In reality, the number of citizens living in a custom home they build, versus a speculative or tract home is very small. So only a very small percentage of citizens have this option.

You say, "I haven’t studied the issue in depth, but it seems fairly obvious why Americans avoid home sprinkler systems: the cost." I urge you to take the time to do some in depth study and I believe you will see why Americans should embrace residential fire sprinklers, "the cost" both in actual dollars as well as the emotional cost of lost lives and property loss. We must weigh all the benefits against the relatively small cost.

Thank you for the opportunity provide a reasonable alternative to your position.

Warren Peterson, Fire Chief, Washington State

Michele Steinberg said...

You state that you "haven't studied the issue in depth," in your 4th paragraph. That's evident from the remainder of this blog post.

John Francis said...

Mr. Hahesy,

Thank you for your well written article about mandatory sprinkler systems in new homes. I have been a volunteer firefighter for 29 years, and am now serving as chief of our fire district for the third time. I am strongly on your side of the issue at hand. The only point that I would add to your writing is that I am tired of the government making my decisions for me. It seems that soon Big Brother will be telling me the required square footage of my new house and how warm or cool I have to keep it. This idea of the government running the people needs to come to an end. Thank you for taking a proper stance on this issue.

John Francis, Chief
Laramie County Fire District #8
Cheyenne WY

Matt Cole said...

Mr. Hahesy:
Risk is always a moving target, depending on what one knows about it. Smoke detectors certainly helped decrease the risk of death by fire, beginning in the 70's. They were also regarded as expensive and unnecessary by the building and financial communities. Now, we have the relatively new and affordable technology of home fire sprinklers which can further lessen the risk of fire deaths in the home, where most fire deaths occur. The methods of new home construction today, allowing the use of unified strand board (USB) engineered floor joists, significantly place firefighters at risk due to unexpected structural collapse (there have been multiple instances of this occurring in the U.S.). Home fire sprinklers are effective and affordable, with significant benefit.
I completely disagree with your view.

Matthew B. Cole, P.E.
Fire Protection Engineer (retired)
Former Volunteer Firefighter
Falling Waters, WV

Anonymous said...

I'm just going to leave these here, to help you further research your topic.
Smoke alarms probably won't wake up children (never mind that they probably can't even get themselves out of the house because mommy and daddy don't talk about fire safety in the first place)




And since smoke alarms probably won't wake your child up, when mommy and daddy may not be home, what happens? http://www.kare11.com/story/news/2015/10/12/investigator-mom-wasnt-home-when-kids-died-in-fire/73821960/

Father and son die in home, hard-wired smoke alarms functioned http://www.lehighvalleylive.com/lehigh-county/index.ssf/2015/12/2_dies_in_lower_macungie_house.html

$6.9 billion in fire damage every year, a number that could be much lower with an automatic suppression unit. Note: during a fire only the closest sprinkler heads operate, NOT the entire system. Please don't buy the myth. Your entire house will not have water damage from sprinklers but it will from fire extinguishing, overhaul, and extension checking. One child dies every day in a home fire. https://www.unitypoint.org/blankchildrens/fire-statistics.aspx

and I like how you mentioned the builders. The very same builders filling homes with lightweight, cheap, materials made of synthetic materials that are causing our homes to burn astronomically faster than ever before. The same builders who KNOW they are making our homes less safe during fires, right? Not only do they burn faster, causing faster flashovers (which NOBODY survives, often not even firefighters in full gear), but the poisons from the burning synthetics are so toxic just one lungful is enough to knock a person out cold or disorient them completely. Smoke alarms will NOT save them then.



To sum up, please do more research. Please separate fact from fiction and follow the money. It's not firefighters who will make money from inspecting sprinkler systems. Maybe you're unaware, but fire departments often inspect anyway. If you were that worried about it, just build it into the law that citizens can't be charged for inspections and the tax base covers the costs as part of funding the salaries of the fire department inspectors (who are already inspecting things now).

Pat Coughlin said...

Had Hahesy studied the issue in more depth, he would have found that:

Home builders can cut installation costs by over 50 percent with plumbing-based sprinklers.

Communities can give home builders incentives such as smaller water mains, fewer hydrants, etc., that can make sprinklers cost-neutral.

Years of fire loss data show that smoke alarms reduce the likelihood of death by only 50 percent Why? They fail at an annual compounded rate of 3 percent, and they do not control fires to give occupants enough time to exit.

As noted, residential sprinklers do not require annual inspections.

For more information about plumbing-based sprinklers, check my posts at Excellence in Fire Protection.

Ronnie T said...

It blows me away that in this day and time, with the information readily at hand, that someone in Mr. Hahesy's position can make these glaringly opinionated statements that could possibly affect lives. Where were you when construction mandates for 2x6 construction came about in earthquake-prone areas? Should we not mandate these additional measures but instead rely on GCs to value-engineer a project down to 2 x 4 toothpicks? It's unfortunate that the term "value engineering" even exists, but since Mr. Hahesy has obviously never been involved in the actual construction of a project, it's much easier to write an opinion paper since he's the expert. How many people like yourself will come up with these stances without contacting reality? Absolutely burns my britches, so to speak.

Cynthia Ross Tustin, Fire Chief said...

Sometimes it's helpful to reframe the argument for those who oppose residential sprinklers. Please stop thinking of them as a technological advancement for homes. It may serve Mr Hahesy, and other naysayers, better if they look at the system for what it really is...plumbing! And there was a time, in the not so distant past in North American, when having a home with indoor plumbing was considered too posh, and simply an unrealistic luxury for the average home owner.

And perhaps, if we reframe it altogether. What if Mr. Hahesy and others stopped talking about residential sprinklers being a financial burden for first time home buyers and on the builders/developers and started thinking about them as a way to relieve some of the financial burden on the health care system. The life time care cost of one seriously burned person is $1 million; now multiply that by the tens of thousands of current and future burn victims. That's billions of savings in contrast to the price of a home sprinkler...graciously averaged to $6975.63 Add to that, the exponentially rising health care costs associated with firefighter occupational cancer and you have a staggering burden. A financial burden carried by citizens either through insurance costs or taxes. Residential sprinklers would eliminate or drastically reduce the time firefighters spend in the lethal toxic environment created by fires. Prevention is always my cost effective than cure. Granted, not as cost effective as wearing a helmet while driving to work...although NASCAR mandates it.

Finally, I must say, I'm having a difficult time coming up with a creative way to reframe Mr. Hahesy's belief that firefighters will financially benefit down the line from our legislative advocacy. Mostly because it's as ludicrous as it is offensive. Home owners can ensure that their system works themselves as per NFPA 13D. It's inspected once, upon installation, just like all the other plumbing. And the only way firefighters will receive any financial gain is if they live long enough to enjoy their pension. Or in the case of volunteer firefighters who have o pension...if they live long enough.

Anonymous said...

I'm fine with consumer choice and understand the costs of home buying are an important factor. I asked my contractor and City on how to get a system in my home and all were happy to help and did. My sprinkler system, installed while I remodeled was very reasonable and frankly (given I travel a lot) gives me great peace of mind because of the very different and effective ways the system protects my family as opposed to smoke alarms. I've recently retired with almost 4 decades in a large regional fire agency in California and sprinklers are not just effective in life safety and cost efficient; they add to the value of ones home and allow for insurance cost reductions. Some consideration might be given to your statement "I haven’t studied the issue in depth". There's a lot to be aware of and to opine merely on cost, politics or superficial review is often unfortunate on any topic. Worse is the lack of understanding of all the benefits and actual small percentage of costs the systems represent. Residential sprinkler systems are an important factor in improving public safety, if only supported by those that set the policy.

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