Here come the sprinklers – and it’s about time

Every new, single-family home built in California must have a fire sprinkler system.

That’s been state law since January. The mandate delights firefighters, fire marshals, sprinkler makers and the specially licensed contractors who install the systems.

“This is a life-saving and property-savings move,” said Daniel Berlant, a spokesman for CalFire and the Office of the State Fire Marshal. “A fire sprinkler system is like having firefighters be at your home right away.”

Rural counties and builders aren’t so enthusiastic about the law.

“For rural areas this is going to be more expensive per housing unit,” said Paul Smith, senior legislative advocate for the Regional Council of Rural Counties. “This (requirement) doesn’t necessarily reflect the way homes are constructed and used in rural counties, particularly those at high elevations.”

Builders say a sprinkler system adds at least $2 per square foot to the cost of a home. Advocates of the residential systems cite a study saying the average increase is $1.61 per square foot.

For an average home, builders say the material and labor of installing a system will add a minimum of $3,000 to $5,000 to a home price. And that amount could climb if local construction codes are more stringent than the state.

Among the complaints of rural counties, which represent about 6 percent of the state’s population and nearly two-thirds of its land, are that smaller counties do not have the specially licensed contractors required to install the systems and, in many cases, residents don’t have the water hookups to supply the sprinklers, requiring installation of tanks of at least 330 gallons.  

Additionally, most construction in rural areas are custom homes – not subdivisions – which prevent builders from achieving economies of scale on sprinkler installation.
But the bottom-line for rural counties is this: The sprinklers would be better placed on the roof, instead of being embedded in the ceiling.

“Most fires that occur in low populated areas are wildfires,” Smith said. “That’s the main threat.”

Another cost for some builders who put projects on hold because of the state’s economic doldrums is the necessity of redesigning their projects to include the sprinklers and then rebidding them.

Prior to January, commercial buildings and multi-family structures like condominiums and apartment buildings required sprinkler systems.
But in 2009 the International Code Council, which creates model construction codes, added single family and two-family homes to the sprinkler requirement. The United States enforces the council’s standards.

California and several other states, including Maryland and South Carolina, have laws that say whatever standards the council adopts become the state’s minimum.

So when the council said new homes must have sprinklers starting Jan. 1, 2011, that became what California’s Building Standards Code required.

And there was nothing California could do – despite the cratered construction industry.

“This came at the worst possible time,” said Bob Raymer, senior engineer and technical director of the California Building Industry Association.

“Our industry is in the worst economic straits we’ve ever been in since we started keeping statistics in 1955. Our worst year was 2009. Our second worst year was 2010. And now it looks like 2011 will overtake 2010.”

Citing the condition of its construction sector, Pennsylvania’s GOP-majority Legislature passed a bill in April repealing its residential sprinkler law, which also took effect in January. The Pennsylvania Builders Association estimated the new law would add approximately $3.50 per square foot to a home’s cost – potentially more in rural areas.

The repeal was the first piece of legislation signed by Gov. Tom Corbett, also a Republican.

Despite the repeal, builders still must offer buyers the option to install sprinklers, however.

For many California residents the code change isn’t new. The National Fire Protection Association – a vigorous advocate for sprinkler mandates – lists 153 cities and counties that had sprinkler requirements in place prior to 2011.

Riverside, for example, has had such an ordinance since 1993, according to a Press-Enterprise report.

The counties of Contra Costa, Los Angeles, Monterey, Marin, San Diego, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Santa Clara, Sonoma and Yolo all had previously existing sprinkler law ordinances for their unincorporated areas.

More than 140 cities from Agoura Hills to Woodland have similar code requirements.

Rural counties sought a postponement of the rule’s effective date. Sen. Tom Berryhill, a Stanislaus Republican, introduced legislation to do just that.

The measure, SB 726, would allow counties to opt out of the sprinkler rule until 2014, the next International Code Council update.

Berryhill’s bill went nowhere.

As Raymer and others say, it’s hard to argue against increased fire safety.

“The purpose of residential fire sprinklers is to contain a fire to the room it started in and give the family time to safely evacuate,” Berlant said.

“Hundreds of people die in structural fires every year. Residential fire sprinklers are going to reduce the death rate. In homes that already have sprinklers installed or in which people put them in voluntarily, you can see a huge difference in the survival rate when there’s a fire. Waiting just really isn’t a good idea.”

Some rural county residents see a benefit in the sprinklers. Several realtors quoted by the Tahoe Daily Tribune in a November article said the new rules give the buyer a “safer home” which, in turn, increases its value.

Raymer says the new sprinkler rule is just the latest cost increase for home construction. It comes on the heels of recent energy efficiency regulations and green building standards.

“Energy regulations, green building rules and now toss sprinklers on top of it. We’ve added $10,000 to the cost of a house in the last 18 months alone,” said Raymer. “And done it in the worst economic doldrums since the Depression.”

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