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
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 fires.
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 burns.
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 the time.
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
Other factors limiting the acceptance of sprinklers are equally flimsy. The
Committee for Firesafe Dwellings lists and rebuts some additional "sprinkler
- 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
- 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.