Fire sprinklers save lives, prevent property damage in Chicagoland

Fire sprinklers save lives, prevent property damage in Chicagoland

When Nicole Batinovic built her new Libertyville, Ill. home, local ordinances required an addition that fire safety experts say increase her chances of surviving a fire by 80 percent: a sprinkler. Batinovic chose highly rated United States Alliance Fire Protection of Lake Forest to install the fire protection system. “It went very smoothly and I don’t have to pay any attention to it now,” says the Angie’s List member, who paid about $12,000 to cover 6,000 square feet of her 2008 home, plus several hundred feet of exposed ceiling in the basement that required copper pipes.

Libertyville stands among 91 municipalities statewide, including many Chicago suburbs like Gurnee, Long Grove, Wilmette, Glenwood and Glen Ellyn, that mandate the installation of fire sprinklers in new residential construction, according to state fire marshal Larry Matkaitis. The city of Chicago itself does not, however.

Earlier this year, he proposed regulations to the state legislature’s Joint Committee on Administrative Rules that would have mandated sprinklers in all new construction statewide, but shelved them in August amidst protests from homebuilders, who cited costs and lack of flexibility in their opposition. Most sprinklers, he says, remain flush against the ceiling and don’t interfere with the look of the home. According to the National Fire Protection Association, individual sprinkler heads must cover at least 144 square feet, and some cover up to 200 square feet. They connect to the primary plumbing system, and only the individual heads that detect a fire will deploy.

Matkaitis says he plans to re-introduce the regulations in the future, and strongly recommends anyone building a home or remodeling an existing home install sprinklers. “My own 2,400-square-foot house in Chicago is 60 years old, and I put in sprinklers for about $3,500,” he says.

Sprinklers often extinguish fires faster than fire departments, he contends. “If I send the fire department into a house, we’re going to be pumping 500 gallons per minute,” he says. “In most cases, a single sprinkler head knocks out a fire with 15 gallons per minute.” He says only the specific sprinklers that detect heat will activate, instead of drenching the entire home, and thus case less water damage to the house.

Overall, according to statistics provided by his office, residential fire sprinklers reduce property loss by 75 percent per fire and reduce the likelihood of death by 80 percent in the event of a fire. “A sprinkler is the single best piece of fire safety equipment you can put in your home,” he says.

Jamie Reap, vice president of USAFP, which installed Batinovic’s system, says fire sprinklers address dangers presented by modern lightweight construction techniques and materials such as engineered lumber.

“They’re extremely strong and allow these enormous soaring open floor plans that people are in love with, but when subjected to flame, they crumple compared to traditional lumber, ”Reap says.

Matkaitis says this matches what he’s witnessed across the state, including in the Chicago area,. “They’re using synthetic lumber and a lot of shortcuts,” he says. “I hear from fire chiefs all the time that they’re arriving at the door to put out a fire, and these newer-construction houses are already burned down. It’s getting to the point that it’s very dangerous to put a firefighter inside new home construction.”

Matkaitis and Reap say sprinklers should only several thousand to the cost of a home build. Matkaitis says nationwide, systems average about $1.35 per square foot installed. Reap adds that this varies widely by region, and says Chicago-area customers should expect rates closer to $2.25 per square foot, including basement space.

For those with fire suppression systems, Matkaitis recommends regular maintenance, including checking sprinklers to make sure they’re not blocked, opening the drain valve annually to ensure unimpeded water flow, and having the system’s backflow prevention device inspected yearly by a licensed plumber.

“No municipality I’m aware of requires you to do annual maintenance, but we consider it to be a very good practice, whether you do it yourself or ask us to do it for a nominal fee,” Reap says, adding that failing to do regular maintenance may result in costly repairs. “It’s simple to verify that it’s operating correctly.”

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