Builders in Pennsylvania are declaring victory after a
contentious campaign to remove a residential fire-sprinkler
requirement from the state's recently updated building code.
The Pennsylvania Uniform Construction Code (UCC) is closely
based on the 2009 IRC and included the model code's
residential-sprinkler requirement when it became effective on
January 1 of this year. Like similar groups elsewhere, however,
Pennsylvania builders associations successfully appealed to
state lawmakers for relief from what they called a burdensome
and unnecessary mandate (see "State Legislators Deal Blow to
Residential-Sprinkler Codes," 10/10).
A matter of choice. In March, the state House of
Representatives approved a version of the sprinkler-repeal bill
by a sweeping 154-to-39 majority. The Pennsylvania Builders
Association (PBA) had lobbied strenuously for its passage,
claiming that the requirement would add thousands of dollars to
the cost of new homes, pricing potential buyers out of the
market and putting further pressure on an already-struggling
To bolster its argument, the PBA cited residential
building-permit applications, which had been issued at the rate
of about 1,100 to 1,200 per month throughout most of 2010. In
December, though, permits more than doubled before falling back
to the normal range in January of 2011. That, sprinkler
opponents argued, was convincing evidence that home buyers were
actively trying to avoid the requirement, since sprinklers
would not be required in new homes given permits before the
revised code took effect.
"Consumer choice is an important consideration for us," says
PBA spokesperson Melissa Etshied. "Builders were being put in a
position of having to tell people they didn't have a choice.
Our members are happy to install sprinklers if people want
After its passage by the house, the original repeal bill, HB
377, moved to the Senate, which passed an amended version on
April 14. The Senate version then went back to the House, which
swiftly approved it and sent it to Governor Tom Corbett, who
signed it into law on April 25.
Changing the rules. The tactics used in amending the
bill have raised the hackles of firefighters and other
sprinkler advocates, who claim that builder pushback on the
issue has not only eliminated the sprinkler provision but also
fundamentally changed the way state code is enacted.
Under Pennsylvania law, responsibility for updating the state's
residential code falls to the Uniform Construction Code Review
and Advisory Council, commonly known as the RAC. Council
members are appointed by the governor under a formula that
divides up the 19 seats on the body among builders,
manufacturers, safety experts, and local officials. Since the
RAC was created in 2008, code changes have been adopted or
rejected by a simple majority vote of its members. Under the
Senate-amended version of HB 377, however, future changes to
the code must be ratified by a two-thirds vote of the RAC,
meaning that at least 13 of 19 votes are required for
The final version of the bill also made a one-word change to
the language that defines the qualifications of RAC members.
Under the original rules, four of the 19 seats on the council
were reserved for members with close ties to the residential
construction industry, including a residential contractor, a
residential general contractor, and one representative each
from the manufactured and modular housing industries. A fifth
industry seat on the council was reserved for a member defined
simply as a "contractor."
Under the amended version of the bill, the contractor seat will
in the future be reserved for a general contractor. As a result
of that change, the fire sprinkler contractor who currently
holds the seat will be replaced - presumably with a less
sprinkler-friendly member - when his current term expires in
June of 2012.
Recriminations. Sprinkler advocates are crying foul.
Given that the sprinkler provision originally made its way into
the state code by a narrow 10-to-9 vote of the RAC, critics
charge that the revised rules come dangerously close to
granting residential builders veto power over any code changes
they happen to find inconvenient.
"Why don't we just have the fox watch the henhouse while we're
at it?" asks National Fire Sprinkler Association regional
manager Raymond Lonabaugh in exasperation.
Jeff Shapiro, executive director of the International
Residential Code Fire Sprinkler Coalition, notes the extent to
which anti-sprinkler forces have strengthened their position in
the state. "Builders are very well-represented in the state
legislature, and they have effective lobbying," he says. "When
they told their legislators that they wanted the sprinkler
requirement removed, the legislature went one better and
dismantled the whole code process for them."
Not surprisingly, PBA's Melissa Etshied defends the changes.
"Our criticism of the way the RAC worked before is that it was
too easy for a large corporation to use its influence to sell
product," she says. "Replacing the contractor seat with a
general contractor will give the RAC stronger expertise in the
industry as a whole."
National picture. With the action of the Pennsylvania
legislature, California stands alone as the one state to have
adopted a version of the IRC with an effective sprinkler
provision still in place. (South Carolina has also adopted the
2009 IRC, but has delayed the sprinkler phase-in date until at
least 2014. And even though the sprinkler requirement is also
technically in effect in Maryland, its status as a so-called
"home rule" state means that individual counties are free to
modify the state code as they wish, and all but three have
eliminated the sprinkler mandate.) More than 30 states that
have yet to adopt the 2009 code have preemptively removed the
requirement as well, or passed legislation prohibiting its
inclusion in any future code.
Nevertheless, Shapiro is convinced that concerns about product
liability will eventually turn the tide in favor of fire
sprinklers. He credits builder organizations in California -
most of which, he says, did not oppose the requirement - with
protecting their members from a coming flood of
"Table-saw manufacturers have been successfully sued for
injuries that could have been prevented by a readily available
safety device, even though they aren't required," he says.
"Compare that to fire sprinklers. They're a proven technology
that's required by a nationally recognized standard, and
builders are choosing to ignore it. Why do they think they're
not going to get sued when someone dies in a house fire? When
that happens, they'll find that they've been hung out to dry."
- Jon Vara