Sprinklers save lives, and should be in every home

Fires turn deadly
© Home fire sprinkler coalition

But the builders and the realtors are fighting sprinkler laws across the country.

Years ago we did a series, Big Steps in Building, and called for fire sprinklers in every housing unit. At the time, it looked like it might actually happen. The International Residential Code included them, and it is the model for building codes across the country, and the National Fire Protection Association all called for them.

BigStepsBig Steps/Promo image
Writing in Forbes, Sheri Koones explains why they are so important.

Fires in single- and two-family homes caused $6.1 billion in property loss, according to data compiled by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), based in Quincy, Mass. But more sobering is the loss of life that often results from house fires. Every year, more than 2,300 people perish due to fires in their homes. If residential fire sprinkler systems had been installed in those houses, property damage could have been greatly reduced, and lives could have been saved.

Fire out over chair© Home fire sprinkler coalition

Some people worry that water damage from sprinklers could be worse than fire damage and that, like smoke detectors, sprinklers might go off when there is no fire. But sprinklers are mechanical, not electrical, and are set off by heat. They rarely go off on their own, and they only go off where there is a fire. Sheri Koones describes research in Scottsdale, Arizona, that found that a sprinkler system delivers 8 times less water than fire hoses, and gets the fire out much sooner and in a more targeted manner.

In Scottsdale, according to the study, the average cost of fire damage in homes without sprinklers was $45,000, compared to just $2,166 for homes with a sprinkler system. Damage from smoke also was reduced in homes with sprinklers, because house fires were extinguished much more quickly. Most importantly, in Scottsdale, where sprinklers have been required in all new homes built since 1986, there have been no deaths due to fire in homes with sprinklers. However, there have been 13 deaths in homes without sprinklers.

Flashover timelineHome fire sprinkler coalition/CC BY 2.0

What's also interesting is that Scottsdale is the only city in Arizona with a sprinkler bylaw, because it is actually illegal in Arizona for municipalities to pass sprinkler bylaws. There are 29 states the the USA, mostly Republican, where there are bans. ProPublica did an investigation and found:

U.S. homebuilders and realtors unleashed an unprecedented campaign to fend off the change, which they argued would not improve safety enough to justify the added cost. Housing industry trade groups poured money into lobbying and political contributions...To date, industry groups have helped block efforts to make sprinkler systems mandatory in new homes in at least 25 states. Only California and Maryland, along with dozens of cities, have adopted the International Code Council’s recommendation and required the devices.

The ProPublica investigation is shocking. In Texas, which prides itself on its freedom, one councillor from a small town trying to pass a sprinkler bill said, “They came and took control away from the government that was closest to the people.” In New Jersey, Chris Christie vetoed the bill, which was called “a slap in the face to a community of public safety officials who have endorsed, supported and fought for this legislation.”

cost is not that much© Home fire sprinkler coalition

This is over a life-saving system that maybe adds 1.5 percent to the price of a house, which the homeowner will probably recoup in insurance savings. And it doesn't just put out fires:


Green Builder Michael Anschel reminds us also that smoke is what often gets people in fires, and that sprinklers put out the fires much faster, and give occupants time to get out.

Houses also aren't built the way they used to be; solid wood joists have been replaced by composite T-joists, framing is engineered to use less wood that collapse much faster, and many homes are full of combustible insulation and furnishings that are full of toxic flame retardants. I wrote earlier:

lightweight stuff burns fast© home fire sprinkler coalition

When retardant-laden materials do catch fire (retardants, by definition, only slow it down), the chemicals are dangerous to breathe. One report says, "The International Association of Firefighters supports bans on these chemicals because firefighters have been shown to be at much higher risk of cancer, heart, lung and other debilitating diseases caused by the dangerous gases created when fire retardants burn. If you are in your home when a fire starts, you are exposed to them too."

This is also why I think sprinklers should be on the menu for anyone building a healthy home; if every residential unit was sprinklered then we wouldn't need flame retardants in anything. We wouldn't need to treat wood or anything else with chemicals to keep them from burning. And when there was a fire, there would be less chance of exposure.

Just because many states banned making sprinkler systems mandatory, that doesn't mean people can't demand them and get them installed. As Sheri Koones concludes:

According to sprinkler industry humor, homeowners have a choice: “A puddle of water or a pile of ashes.” It is clear that sprinkler systems can save lives and reduce property loss, and should be considered an important option when building or remodeling a home.

And Americans should vote out the jerks who passed these anti-sprinkler laws; they take money from real estate and building industry lobbyists while their voters die in fires that could have been prevented. Sprinklers should be in every residential unit connected to a water supply.

Sprinklers save lives, and should be in every home
But the builders and the realtors are fighting sprinkler laws across the country.

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