Sprinklers - A Great Idea That Has Not Happened Yet
Every few years there is a calamitous fire high in
loss of life that pushes fire sprinkler systems into
the public discussion. Recently it was the furniture
store fire in Charleston, South Carolina that killed
nine of that city's firemen. The building was apparently
sprinklered in the public showroom area but the warehouse
portion where the roof collapsed was not protected.
The business dealt primarily in sofas so the building
was filled with the same materials that are found
in every home in America.
For many years most communities have had building
codes that require the installation of automatic sprinklers
in new commercial and high-occupancy buildings and
after such tragedies as the MGM Hotel fire and numerous
nursing home blazes many codes were changed to require
retrofitting of older buildings. But mandating sprinklers
in new single-family homes never seems to generate
a lot of support.
The U.S. Fire Administration, a division of the Federal
Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) singles
out 12 communities that have either enacted residential
sprinkler requirements or are considering it. This
probably is far from a complete list but would lead
a reader to assume that, at best, it isn't a real
When one reads the data on the cost/benefits of sprinkler
systems, the idea of outfitting single family homes
with them seems like a no-brainer.
In a study completed in 2005 for the National Fire
Protection Association, Kimberly D. Rohr and John
R. Hall, Jr., of the Association's Fire Analysis and
Research Division presented some pretty startling
statistics regarding the efficacy of automatic extinguishing
equipment. The data examined was for the years 1989
to 1998 (the last year for which good data on sprinklers
is available) and measured the average number of civilian
deaths per thousand fires in various types of facilities.
Deaths in manufacturing properties were 2.0 per thousand
fires in non-sprinklered buildings compared to 0.8
in those that were protected. In stores and offices
the figures were 1.0 to 0.3 respectively; in health
care facilities for the aged or sick 4.9 to1.2 and
in hotels and motels the death toll was a whopping
91 percent lower - from 9.1 to 0.8. The authors estimated
that the impact of sprinklers in small residential
properties would be 74 percent fewer deaths.
Property damage per fire also declined dramatically
where sprinklers were present; down 64 percent for
manufacturing properties, 53 percent for stores and
offices, and 66 percent in health care facilities
But where do most fires occur? FEMA quotes another
National Fire Protection Association publication,
"In 2005 there were:
396,000 residential fires
3,055 civilian fire deaths
13,825 civilian fire injuries
$6.9 billion in property damage"
and says that its own studies "indicate that
the installation of residential fire sprinkler systems
could have saved thousands of lives; prevented a large
portion of those injuries; and eliminated hundreds
of millions of dollars in property losses."
A non-profit organization, the Committee for Firesafe
Dwellings, says that eight out of ten fire deaths
in the United States are the result of a fire in someone's
home, and one-half of all fire losses occur in these
NFPA statistics show that, in a home with both an
automatic sprinkler system and smoke detectors 95
percent of fires are survivable and that the sprinklers
will control the fire at or near its point of origin
91 percent of the time. Quick extinguishing of the
blaze also reduces the production of carbon monoxide
and other gases which cause far more deaths than actual
The Committee for Firesafe Dwellings provides the
following technical information:
"...for every 18? a fire increases in temperature
it doubles its consumption rate. In an unsprinklered
residence the upper half of the room of origin can
reach temperatures above 1,000? within 3 to 5 minutes....When
the temperature reaches about 1,200? the accumulated
combustible fire gases will ignite, engulfing the
room and quickly spread into the rest of the dwelling.
In a residence equipped with an automatic fire sprinkler
system the heat from the fire will activate the sprinkler
system usually within 2 to 3 minutes. Only the heads
directly above the fire...will activate, each discharging
between 10 to 26 gallons of water per minute."
According to the same source, the average hose used
by a fire department for interior fire fighting discharges
125 to 200 gallons of water per minute and by the
time the fire department arrives at a fire it must
usually employ multiple lines so sprinklers can also
limit fire and water damage.
So, with such overwhelming evidence that residential
sprinklers can save both lives and property, why the
reluctance to mandate them in all new residential
construction? Cost certainly isn't the reason. Various
sources quote the cost of installation in new construction
at $0.50 to $1.50 per square foot or $1,200 to $3,600
for the average 2,400 square foot building. At the
higher end this is about one-half the cost of carpeting.
Retrofitting existing buildings runs a bit more but
is easy to do and the price is coming down all of
In addition, many insurance companies offer discounted
premiums ranging as high as 20 percent to owners of
buildings with sprinklers.
The reasons for the reluctance may be two-fold. First
of all, there is a wide perception that sprinklers
are visually intrusive and will spoil the look of
a residence. Have you been in a large condomiun complex
lately? Almost all of them are sprinklered and the
installation is barely noticable. Residential sprinkler
heads are much smaller than those in commercial applications
and they can be fitted flush to the ceiling or wall.
There are also styles to match a variety of decors.
Other factors limiting the acceptance of sprinklers
are equally flimsy. The Committee for Firesafe Dwellings
lists and rebuts some additional "sprinkler myths."
The water damage is worse than the first damage.
Sprinklers are activated by heat not smoke and, as
stated above, only the heads directly above the fire
activate so the fire is kept from spreading with a
minimal amount of water damage.
Failure results in major water damage. Homes already
have a network of water piping for domestic use which
are typically only tested at city water main pressure,
usually between 60 and 100 pounds per square inch
(psi). Sprinkler lines have to pass a 24-hour test
at 150 psi.
If, in light of all of this information, your community
has not moved to mandate sprinklers and builders have
failed to incorporate them in their plans, at least
be aware of the benefits if you are building a home
or planning extensive remodeling of an existing one.
It is tough to argue against a $3,000 expenditure
that could save your families life.