State may require fire sprinklersA lot of questions but little support came Tuesday for a proposal to mandate automatic fire sprinklers in new homes constructed after Jan. 1, 2011.
By: Brad Swenson Bemidji Pioneer, Worthington Daily Globe
A lot of questions but little support came Tuesday for a proposal to mandate automatic fire sprinklers in new homes constructed after Jan. 1, 2011.
While admitting sprinklers save lives, many building officials who attended a town hall meeting at Bemidji State University said the measure would make homes less affordable and errant sprinklers could cause lots of damage.
The state Department of Labor and Industry, which has jurisdiction over the matter, is gathering input before formally making a recommendation to change the State Building Code, said Commissioner Steve Sviggum.
The International Code Council voted to add the provision to its International Residential Code during its meeting this fall in Minneapolis. The IRC, which is updated every three years, is basis of the Minnesota Building Code.
When the 2009 IRC is published in March, Sviggum will appoint an advisory council to formally begin a public hearing process over whether to adopt the provision into Minnesota code, he said. Until then, Sviggum is holding town hall meetings across the state to gain input.
“I’ve had comments … all the way from are you absolutely crazy, on one end, to the other end, it’s about time,” said Sviggum, former Republican speaker of the Minnesota House. “There’s obviously the concerns of safety — not just for the residents of the home, but also for the firefighters who come and try to save that home.”
On the other end is the question of the cost of installing sprinklers, he said, “and some say significant costs. We’ve heard anywhere from $1.50 to $5 a square foot, depending upon you’re being in town on a municipal water source system or whether you be out in the country and need maybe a holding tank and additional pumps.”
Sviggum and Assistant Commissioner Tom Joachim spoke to about 40 building contractors, building inspectors and fire service people at the town hall meeting. None were enthusiastically in support.
Contractors “are certainly in favor of safety,” said Howie Zetah of Zetah Construction of Bemidji, whom Sviggum asked to present opposition to the measure. “Safe people in their homes is our prime concern.”
Opposition issues are few, said Zetah, “but one of them is timing. Right now, the economic times — we all know what housing does to the market. Right now, it’s driving everything, the trickle-down effect is huge. … We don’t want to put anything into the cost of a home that’s going to be a deterrent as far as getting that home to be built.”
It’s the opinion of the Headwaters Builders Association and the National Association of Building Contractors “that mandating this issue should totally be an action of the homeowner.”
The climate may not be conducive to house sprinklers, which could freeze and burst, Zetah also said, adding that issue happened Tuesday at Laporte School. “Most of the new homes that are built in this area, and a lot of rural Minnesota, are in rural Minnesota. They’re not in the city where we do have city water pressure systems.”
Pressure tanks and the pumps add to the costs, he said, bringing it to $5 a square foot.
But home sprinklers can be installed for cheaper than that, and provide a good means of preventing loss of life and property, said Fire Marshal Dennis Stark of Alexandria, Minn., whom Sviggum asked to speak on behalf of the proposal.
Between 3,500 and 4,000 people die annually in the nation from fire, with about 85 percent of them dying in their home, in addition to about 100 firefighters, Stark said. “This is the worst record of all industrialized countries. Fire causes more property damage than any other categories combined, including natural disasters.”
Costs of automatic fire sprinklers in one- and two-family dwellings will be offset by saving lives and property and in lower insurance premiums and construction tradeoffs, Stark said, plus in property tax savings from volunteer fire department operations.
The Fire Protection Research Foundation pegs the average cost of installing home sprinklers at $1.61 a square foot, he said, or about $3,500 for a 2,000-square-foot structure, or about the cost of a typical lawn irrigation system.
Minnesota since the 1990s has required town homes to include sprinkler systems, he said. “A city’s ability to continue to provide fire protection at a reasonable cost can be greatly improved by this new provision.”
Code will require a standard procedure for installing the sprinklers, by state-licensed sprinkler installers or licensed plumbers certified for fire sprinklers, he said. Water supplies as low as 18 gallons a minute are sufficient for the system.
And, other than testing the water flow annually, there is no homeowner maintenance for the system, Stark said. Seasonal homeowners can turn off water and sprinkler systems with the same valve, and turn them back on again with the same control valve.
For rural homes, “in most cases, a slightly larger pump will provide all the water that’s needed,” Stark said. “The standard does not require holding tanks, additional pumps, backup generators, etc. Rather, it focuses on performance.”
In the event of a fire, the heat-triggered sprinkler head closest to the fire will trigger, not the whole system, thus limiting water damage. And, 95 percent of fires are usually put out by the one sprinkler going off.
Insurance companies vary, but many offer a 5 to 21 percent discount to homes with fire protection systems, Stark said.
But Zetah said a survey of nine local insurance carriers showed only one that gives a discount for a home sprinkler system. “The insurance industry is not looking at this as a cost-savings thing.”
“Fires and housing have changed over the last 25 years,” Stark said, adding that while new homes today are safer, fires in them are hotter and faster with petroleum-based products from electronics to couches.
Also, today’s floor trusses are rated for only 15 minutes in a fire before collapsing, while older firmer buildings are rated at an hour to 1½ hours before giving out, he said. “More than ever, sprinklers are needed.”
“The overall flavor was that there would be concerns about everything from maintenance to affordability of homes, that there are concerns about individuals making that choice in their lives as opposed to government doing the harder mandate,” Sviggum said in an interview.
“I also want to give enough credence to the fact there is safety involved, both to the resident as well as the firefighter,” Sviggum said. “It’s a balance we’re going to have to strike over the next few months and make a decision at that time.”
Once the advisory council is formed, it will take about 18 months to vet a proposed addition to the building code and it will be up to Sviggum to formally adopt a rule.
But, Sviggum said, he has range of options, starting with doing nothing and not requiring automatic fire sprinklers.
“It could be non adoption of the ICC recommendation for our residential code .., to full automatic sprinkler adoption as recommended,” he said, “to the possibility of doing it … for the more expensive homes to start with until the industry gets built up.”
An option could also only require sprinklers where most fires start — kitchens and utility rooms, he said. “We’re just trying to bring that balance of safety and the affordability of people to get into a home.”