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 long one.

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 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 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.