Builders, Sprinkler Advocates Squaring Off

SPRINKLER systems save lives and property. But should they be mandated for new homes? A key meeting May 21-26 in Rochester, N.Y., will decide this question, and home builders have massed their considerable political firepower to stop the mandate there.

The event is the Final Action Code Hearings of the International Code Council. The National Association of Home Builders defeated mandatory fire sprinkler proposals last September after two hours of debate at a hearing, but it has warned members and allies that advocates for fire sprinklers "are uniting in an attempt to reverse the defeated proposals" in Rochester. "This will be their most forceful attempt yet," NAHB predicts.

The proposals would require sprinklers in all new one- and two-family homes and townhomes in the 2009 edition of ICC's International Residential Code, which governs home construction for all or part of 46 states, according to ICC. Cost and practicality are two powerful arguments for the home builder community. Installing home sprinklers will cost $2 to $7 per square foot, which is too high, NAHB maintains. The association also cites maintenance issues, cold climates, water connection fees, and having to install larger water lines for sprinklers. And what about homes without public water service? NAHB says home sprinklers should be optional and cites a survey of 800 likely voters that found only 15 percent were willing to pay for a sprinkler system, even at the low estimate of $2 per square foot. Smoke alarms are widely accepted, perform well when properly maintained, and have helped cut the U.S. house fire death rate dramatically, it argues.

The Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition (www.homefiresprinkler.org) sees the issue much differently. Its December 2005 telephone survey of 1,019 U.S. adults, 620 of whom were homeowners, found 69 percent of homeowners believe having a fire sprinkler system increases a home's value and 38 percent would be more likely to buy a new home with sprinklers than one without them. Insurers, fire marshals' groups, safety and fire sprinkler manufacturers support the coalition; NFPA was a founding member when the coalition was created in 1996. NFPA strongly supports residential sprinklers and has a 2007 standard (NFPA 13D, Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems in One- and Two-Family Dwellings and Manufactured Homes) in place for them.

This epic safety showdown will take place at the Rochester Riverside Convention Center. If you can't attend in person, visit www.iccsafe.org/codesforum and the other links mentioned here to see who prevails.

This article originally appeared in the May 2007 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

About the Author

Jerry Laws is Editor of Occupational Health & Safety magazine, which is owned by 1105 Media Inc.

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