IRC Adopts Residential-Sprinkler Requirement

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 will neglect, leaving families with a false — and costly — sense of security.

Nevertheless, the argument in favor of sprinklers has steadily gained momentum. In 2001, the IRC was amended to require sprinklers in multifamily housing. Four years later, a sprinkler standard for one- and two-family residential structures was added to the code as an appendix. And earlier this year, sprinkler advocates broke through in a big way: At a September conference in Minneapolis, the International Code Council — which administers the IRC — approved two additions to the 2009 code requiring sprinklers in all new townhouses and one- and two-family residential structures.

Controversial vote. More than 26,000 ICC members are eligible to vote on code changes. But because there’s no equivalent to an absentee ballot — only those physically present at a hearing can vote — most codes are enacted by a small fraction of the organization’s members. The NAHB took advantage of that fact at the last sprinkler vote, in 2007, when it provided travel expenses to enough “no” voters willing to attend the Rochester, N.Y., meeting to swing the vote in its favor. (Although the pro-sprinkler forces actually had 56 percent of the vote, a two-thirds majority was required for passage.)

At the 2008 hearing, the pro-sprinkler IRC Fire Sprinkler Coalition (IRCFSC) borrowed a leaf from the NAHB playbook and funded an estimated 900 of its supporters, most of whom are fire officials. In the end, the pro-sprinkler forces carried the day by a tally of 1,283 to 470.

A fundamental shift. The inclusion of the new sprinkler provisions in the 2009 code doesn’t mean that every new home will have to be outfitted with sprinklers by the 2011 phase-in date. Many jurisdictions will continue to use previous versions of the code for years, and those that do adopt the newer version are free to drop the sprinkler provisions.

“Some jurisdictions will look at their local conditions and decide they don’t want to adopt them,” says Sprinkler Coalition spokesman Jeff Shapiro. “Even if they adopt the model code on publication, they can put in their own trigger dates.” Still, says Shapiro, passage of the new provisions signals a fundamental shift. “Now the burden is on the builders to demonstrate why they shouldn’t meet the national standard,” he says.

Rear-guard action. Will the NAHB abandon its earlier resistance and climb on the sprinkler bandwagon, or will it choose to wage a jurisdiction-by-jurisdiction campaign against the sprinkler requirement through local and regional chapters? Shapiro says he expects the latter. “I’m told that they’re putting together a research packet on how to fight a residential-sprinkler ordinance,” he says. “That’s fine — I wouldn’t expect anything different.”

But as of early November — several weeks after the pivotal vote — the NAHB was still keeping its intentions under wraps. It responded to repeated calls for information with a general written statement, attributed to NAHB president Sandy Dunn, which noted that the association does “not oppose fire sprinklers, only requirements that would mandate them in new housing,” and that “this decision should be left to home buyers, not regulators.”

Playing the odds. Julius Ballanco, a code consultant and president of the American Society of Plumbing Engineers, thinks the NAHB’s technical objections to residential sprinklers are overblown. He notes that while sprinkler systems used in commercial buildings do require annual service, residential systems are so simple that maintenance requirements are virtually nonexistent. “All you really need to do is look at the sprinkler heads once a year and make sure no one has painted over them,” he says.

Furthermore, says Ballanco, industry figures put the odds against an accidental sprinkler-head activation at about one in 16 million. “You’ll be struck by lightning 16 times before one of your sprinkler heads goes off accidentally,” he says.

Changing times. The sprinkler mandate will add a layer of cost. A recent study by the NFPA’s Fire Protection Research Foundation found that the cost of residential sprinklers in the 10 U.S. and Canadian communities where they are already required averages $1.61 per square foot. And some sprinkler proponents may have a tendency to gloss over the expense. (The Q&A page on the IRCFSC Web site, for example, answers the question “Will the new sprinkler requirement increase the cost of new homes?” with a soothing “Perhaps, but the cost impact is likely to be nominal.”)

Of course, many safety features that today’s consumers take for granted — from automotive seat belts and air bags to ground-fault circuit interrupters and egress windows — would once have been seen as unnecessary extra-cost options. Ballanco, for one, says he doesn’t doubt that consumers and builders alike will quickly come to accept residential sprinklers as well.

“They’ve been claiming that sprinklers will price some buyers out of the market,” Ballanco says. “But builders are smart people. Once the new code takes effect, they’ll learn how to market sprinklers as a good reason to buy a new, safer home.” — Jon Vara

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