Why Sprinkler Systems Should Be in Every Home

Construction and climate are changing; it's time for this big step in building.

Sprinklers in new house
Sprinkler pipes being installed in new house.

Dusty Pixel/ Getty Images

Many years ago we did a series on Treehugger, called "Big Steps in Building," one of which was to make sprinkler systems mandatory in every home. The reasons seemed straightforward: they dramatically reduce the damage and deaths caused by residential fires. The National Fire Protection Association reports:

The 339,500 home structure fires in 2019 (26 percent) caused 2,770 civilian fire deaths (75 percent); 12,200 civilian injuries (73 percent), and $7.8 billion in direct property damage (52 percent). On average, a home structure fire was reported every 93 seconds, a home fire death occurred every three hours and 10 minutes, and a home fire injury occurred every 43 minutes. 
One of every five fires occurred in one- or two-family homes, yet these fires caused nearly two-thirds of the civilian fire deaths (65 percent) and more than half of the civilian fire injuries (53 percent). The 6 percent of fires in apartments caused 10 percent of the civilian fire deaths and 20 percent of the injuries.
Rate of fires is dropping

The rate of fire-related deaths has dropped dramatically in the last few decades, down 55% since 1980. This is usually attributed to the decline in the rate of smoking, and the installation of smoke detectors. But the number of fires remains high, and the financial loss caused by fires is increasing.

We have noted also in a previous post that houses burn faster now with advanced framing and engineered lumber, like those joists made of OSB (oriented strand board) instead of solid wood, collapsing between 3 and 8 times as fast. A fire marshal wrote:

"Wooden I-beams are notorious for rapid fire spread and early catastrophic failure in as little as four minutes of fire involvement. The particle board is often breached by flex ductwork or other utility penetrations, which further weakens the system. It’s cheaper and faster for the builder to construct, and this killer method of construction is likely here to stay."
uncontrolled fires can turn deadly in 3 minutes
©. Home fire sprinkler coalition

Sheri Koones, a writer and author whose books have been reviewed on Treehugger (full disclosure: I wrote the blurb on the back cover for one of them) has also been writing about sprinklers for years and has a new, very thorough article summarizing their advantages. She describes a study in Scottsdale, Arizona that found there was less water damage than from firefighter's hoses and the average cost of fire damage was reduced. The study also concluded: "The most significant finding was that in new homes with required sprinklers built since 1986, there were no deaths due to fire. There were 13 deaths in the older homes without sprinkler systems."

Scottsdale is a particularly interesting case because in a state that values freedom, it is actually illegal for municipalities to pass laws requiring sprinklers, thanks to efforts at the state level by homebuilders. According to Reuters, sprinklers add about $1.61 per square foot to a new house, and they don't want to pay for something that buyers don't care about.

And of course, freedom. As a Texas state representative said when they banned municipal regulation of sprinklers, “I’m for fire safety, but you’re taking the decision out of the hands of the homeowner, and you’re mandating something that ought to be left to the homeowners.” It's the same approach they take to masks; it is illegal in Texas for a municipality to mandate mask-wearing, with the governor saying that is a personal choice too.

"Texans, not government, should decide their best health practices, which is why masks will not be mandated by public school districts or government entities. We can continue to mitigate COVID-19 while defending Texans' liberty to choose whether or not they mask up."

If nothing else, they are consistent. And in both situations, it is likely that people will die because of it. Nor are they alone: In our last post on the subject of sprinklers, this came up again and again in comments.

"Why, once again, Lloyd, are you advocating taking away choice away from adults? I bet most adults KNOW that having a sprinkled house may well be safer - but chose not to do so (especially a new build). YOU may not want the risk of an unsprinkled house but others calculate the risk for themselves and decide they'd rather not pay the money. Why shouldn't they be allowed to take that risk?"

I suppose asbestos and lead paint should be a personal choice too. A few years ago, I concluded: "When promoting green building, we want less wood and more insulation. When promoting healthy buildings, we want to get rid of dangerous flame retardants in our furniture and our insulation. All of which suggests that if we really are serious about green building and safe building, then sprinklers should be part of the package."

Now we in a world of increasing heat, more wildfires, and air conditioners overloading home electrical systems, which is actually causing fires. We have more reasons than ever to make sprinklers mandatory in every new home, even in Texas.

View Article Sources
  1. Ahrens, Marty, and Ben Evarts. "Fire Loss in the United States During 2019." The National Fire Protection Association, 2020.