Single-Family Fire Sprinklers
An Accurate Review White Paper, Fall 2017
By: Kevin Walsh, NCARB, LEED G.A.
Fire Sprinklers in Single Family Homes:
Adopt or Opt Out?
Residential fire sprinklers have been around for decades, but the International Code Council began including the requirement for residential fire sprinklers in the 2009 International Residential Code. (Section R313) Numerous municipalities have adopted the 2009 IRC or newer versions, however many municipalities amend the code to eliminate the residential fire sprinkler requirement. Currently, only approximately 8% of the municipalities or fire protection districts in Illinois require the installation of residential fire sprinklers in a single-family dwelling. Although residential sprinkler popularity has been increasing as more studies have indicated life safety advantages of residential fire sprinklers. This white paper will provide a brief introduction to some of the arguments in support of and against residential fire sprinkler requirements.
As with many code requirements, there are supporters and opponents to the requirement of residential fire sprinklers in single-family homes. First of all, the main argument supporting home sprinklers is the reduced risk of loss-of-life. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), chance of death in homes equipped with a fire sprinkler system is reduced by 69%. Not only does this represent concern for the life-safety of the occupant, but for the first responders, as well. If equipped with fire sprinklers AND smoke detectors, the chance of death is reduced by 82% according FEMA.
The object of sprinklers is to reduce the risk of flame spread and smoke development in a room after the fire is ignited. Without the activation of sprinklers, the air within a room can heat-up to extreme temperatures causing spontaneous ignition of furniture and other items throughout the room. A single sprinkler head is designed to activate when exposed to high heat (typically around 135-150°F), which will then disperse water within the designed area to control the spread of the fire. Only the activated sprinkler head(s) will disperse water. Another advantage of the system is controlling the spread of the fire, minimizing property damage. In some areas, it may be possible to reduce home property insurance costs with the installation of residential fire sprinklers.
An opposing argument for the requirement of residential fire sprinklers is the added installation cost. According the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), residential fire sprinklers have a national average cost of $1.35/SF or 1-1.5% of the cost of the home. Installation costs can vary greatly due to geographic location, utility (water) constraints, labor demand, etc. Another concern is the potential need for maintenance of the system. For many homeowners, fire sprinklers are a cause for concern simply due to fact that many homeowners are not educated or familiar with the system and/or system components. For instance, some homeowners may be concerned with potential leaks, or they may be concerned that a sprinkler head may be hit or damaged causing water damage (recessed sprinkler heads are common in residential applications). In the Chicagoland area, another potential concern is freezing pipes, especially in attics and garages where insulation could easily be compromised. If required, it is crucial that municipalities and industry specialists educate homeowners on the fire sprinkler systems within the homes.
In conclusion, there proven life safety advantages to requiring fire sprinklers in single-family home, however, there are also opposing arguments. The key to making an informed decision on the adoption of a residential fire sprinkler code requirement is being educated on the advantages, public concerns, potential issues, and cost impacts.
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