Home fire sprinkler debate continues in Indiana
You've seen fire sprinklers in offices, businesses and apartments. Now firefighters and the sprinkler industry want to make them mandatory for new Indiana homes.
The International Residential Code, which most states use as the foundation of their own building codes, added the fire sprinkler requirement in 2009. Indiana is operating under the 2003 IRC and is considering the 2009 version for adoption this year.
A state committee has approved the 2009 IRC, minus the sprinkler rule, but the code is still subject to a public hearing and governor approval.
It's the "mandatory" part that rankles longtime highly rated Indianapolis builder Will Wright of Will Wright Building Corp in Carmel, Ind. Buying fire sprinklers should be up to homeowners, he says.
"Government just has to limit itself and stop trying to put us in a state of suspended adolescence," Wright says. "We all grow up to make our own decisions."
The Indiana Builders Association and the National Association of Home Builders also oppose the sprinkler rule. Carlie Hopper, IBA spokeswoman, says sprinklers add safety but so do panic rooms and other items some people can't afford. "They should be market-driven," she says. "This is one of those things that will price first-time buyers out of the market."
Accidental activation unlikely
Worried about accidentally setting off your sprinklers?
Firefighters say sprinkler heads are triggered by heat, usually about 155 degrees, not smoke. So if you burn the pot roast, it won't set them off. Also, only sprinkler heads in the affected room are activated.
Fishers, Ind., Deputy Fire Marshal Ron Lipps says water damage is minimal when compared with that of a fire hose.
A household sprinkler may drop 10 to 20 gallons a minute and put out the fire by the time firefighters arrive, he says, whereas fire hoses spray up to 1,000 gallons of water per minute.
But fire safety officials say home fire sprinklers save lives. In combination with smoke alarms, they reduce the risk of dying in a fire by 82 percent, a 19 percent improvement over smoke alarms alone, according to one study cited by the U.S. Fire Administration. The USFA is endorsing mandatory residential fire sprinklers nationwide.
Numerous states are now considering the 2009 IRC, but California, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire are the only states so far to adopt it with the sprinkler requirement intact. Still, the New Hampshire House of Representatives has passed a bill to block the mandate and Pennsylvania homebuilders are seeking a court injunction. Many cities, including Scottsdale, Ariz., already require home fire sprinklers.
Bruce Knott, fire marshal for Carmel, Ind., says sprinklers make more sense in homes than in businesses. "Where we have our fatalities and most of our fires are at home," he says.
Nationally, 84 percent of all fire deaths happen in homes, according to the USFA.
Carmel has had two fire deaths in 13 years. Fishers has had one in 50 years: a 2-year-old boy in 2006 who died in a "built-to-code modern house with a full alarm system," says Ron Lipps, deputy fire marshal for Fishers. The fire started in the toddler's room and the parents couldn't get to their son in time. It was a tragedy sprinklers "absolutely" could have stopped, he says.
Fishers requires all owners of new homes to sign a paper acknowledging the availability of a fire sprinkler system, but Lipps says few people install them. "We've never had buy-in from the home builders," he says. "I've heard some folks say the builder told them, 'You don't want to do that. It's too expensive.' "
The cost is about $1.61 per square foot, according to the National Fire Protection Association, a sprinkler industry group. The IBA says the cost is more like $2.66 to $6.88 a square foot.
Hopper says one-third of Indiana homes are rural and adding fire sprinklers to a well system requires storage tanks and costs more than a city system.
Fred Pervine, assistant fire marshal with the Indianapolis Fire Department, says a sprinkler system is even more important in a rural area, where the fire department might be farther away.
"Every second or minute a fire is not suppressed, it gets bigger and bigger," he says. "If I was in a rural area, I would want it even more."
Hopper also points out that home fire deaths already are trending downward. Indeed, although the number of fires in one- and two-family homes is up 7 percent in 10 years nationwide, the number of deaths is down 11 percent, according to the USFA. The trend in Indiana is less clear. There were 29 deaths in 2009, 28 in 2008, 47 in 2007, 45 in 2006, 36 in 2005 and 46 in 2004.
Also, older homes are more prone to fire, Hopper says. Federal and local agencies don't track the age of homes that catch on fire, but she says anecdotal evidence points to older homes as the problem.
"It's not new construction that's going up in flames," she says.
Pervine disagrees, and along with other firefighters points out that cooking, which has nothing to do with a home’s age, is the No. 1 cause of house fires. Regardless, he says we’ve got to move forward to protect future generations.
"We need to think about our grandchildren," he says. "They will be safer today if we start putting sprinklers in homes."