For at least two decades, builders and fire-safety experts have disagreed about the need for sprinkler systems in residential construction, with each side adhering to a familiar script. Both camps acknowledge that the widespread adoption of smoke alarms has led to a sharp reduction in fire deaths. But fire officials argue that the 3,000 fatalities still recorded each year are far too many and can best be reduced by adding a residential-sprinkler requirement to building codes.

Builder organizations — spearheaded by the NAHB — counter that sprinklers would add thousands of dollars to the cost of a new home and price many potential first-time home buyers out of the market. The NAHB also claims that sprinklers are subject to accidental activation and freeze damage, and require regular maintenance that many homeowners...

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