Why every green home (really, every home) should have a sprinkler system

test burn
© Underwriters' Laboratory

It was the grabby headline that popped up on my reader: Newer homes can burn 8 times faster than older homes. The local Jacksonville TV station talks to a firefighter about how engineered joists made from Oriented Strand Board or OSB, act in fires compared to traditional solid wood joists:

The old-fashioned lumber (referring to the solid wood beams), they will start to sag. The new engineered lumber (OSB beams), doesn’t fail until it’s gone. It doesn’t give you any warning. It doesn’t start to sag; it’s just gone.

floor assemblies© Underwriters' Laboratory

The article refers to an Underwriters Laboratory study which found that OSB joists burn eight times as fast as traditional lumber. In searching, I could only find a study that showed three times as fast, with the floor made of OSB joists collapsing in six minutes instead of 19 minutes for the solid wood joist floor. But that is still really fast:

burn times© Underwriters' Laboratory

The problem is compounded by the fact that green builders are moving toward what is called advanced framing, also known as energy-efficient framing and optimum value engineering. As noted in Green Building Advisor,

advanced framing© Energy Vanguard/ not much wood in there.

The whole point of advanced framing, also known as optimum value engineering (OVE), is to frame a house so that it meets its structural requirements without wasting material. A welcome corollary is that the same house will have more room for insulation inside the walls and will therefore be more energy efficient than a conventionally framed house.

But less material means less extra stuff to hold it up when there is a fire. It’s one of the reasons that firefighters (and TreeHugger) have been suggesting that all houses should have sprinkler systems, which is being fought by builders as too costly, and in fact in Minnesota, Tennessee and Nevada, politicians are passing state laws which actually prohibit sprinkler system requirements, which is totally nuts, but that’s America.

And while home fires are happening less than they used to, thanks mainly to the fact that fewer adults are smoking and fewer kids get to play with matches, it is still a serious problem; in 2014, according to the NFPA:

  • there were more than 367,000 home structure fires
  • 2,745 people died in home fires, meaning that 84 percent of the country’s fire deaths that year happened at home
  • home fires caused 11,825 injuries, or 75 percent of all civilian fire injuries
  • property loss from home fires totalled $6.8 billion

big step building sprinkers
From our earlier post, Put Sprinklers in Every Housing Unit

There are so many contradictions. When promoting green building, we want less wood and more insulation. When promoting healthy building, we want to get rid of dangerous flame retardants in our furniture and our insulation. All of which suggest that if we really are serious about green building and safe building, then sprinklers should be part of the package.

But if they are not, here are some recommendations:

  • If designing or buying a house, ensure that at least one window in each bedroom is sized for emergency egress.
  • Have a smoke detector outside every bedroom door and mix the types: battery powered, hard wired, photoelectric and ionization. Each operate under different circumstances so cover all the bases.
  • Get emergency egress ladders for upper floors.
  • Get a fire extinguisher for your kitchen.
  • Do a family fire drill.

Tags: Big Steps In Building | Housing Industry


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