Imagine the public outcry if an airplane crashed every month. Month after month, crash after crash, thousands of Americans dying from a preventable incident seems unimaginable.
However, a similar scenario is being played out today in homes across America, where residential fires kill upward of 2,500 people each year. In 2009, California home fires killed 44 people and injured 430 including 102 firefighters as reported to the California Office of the State Fire Marshal.
In response to growing concerns about home-fire fatalities and irrefutable fire-loss data, states such as California and Pennsylvania have adopted national building codes that require fire sprinklers in all newly constructed homes.
"We know that fire sprinklers save lives, reduce injuries and decrease property damage," explains California Acting State Fire Marshal Tonya Hoover, who says this fact is borne out by decades of studies across the nation.
In fact, incorporating residential fire sprinklers in the 2010 California Residential Building Code is not new, but rather, formalizes a process already underway, according to National Fire Sprinkler Association (NFSA) Western Regional Manager Bruce Lecair. "In reality, more than one-third of California already has home sprinklers, so this new code will just accelerate this trend," says Lecair, referring to the 160 municipalities that have individual fire-sprinkler ordinances in place.
While the need for residential fire sprinklers is clear and the mandate in place for Californians, builders and home buyers still have a choice in the type of system they select for their homes.
A growing number of new-home builders are choosing multipurpose fire sprinklers over traditional standalone or independent systems commonly used in commercial applications.
"The goal of any sprinkler system is to suppress the fire long enough for first responders to arrive, but there are significant differences in fire sprinkler design, performance and maintenance costs," says Jayson Drake, senior product manager, Plumbing and Fire Safety, for Uponor North America. "Some builders prefer multipurpose fire sprinklers because of their affordability and ease of installation."
A multipurpose system combines the cold-water plumbing and the fire sprinkler system into one. The alternative requires three separate sets of pipes - two for the home's hot- and cold-water plumbing and a third for the standalone fire sprinkler system.
Since just two sets of pipes are required, multipurpose systems install up to 65 percent faster and can reduce the cost by as much as 15 percent, compared with traditional systems, explains Drake.
A key benefit of these interconnected, multipurpose systems is their reliability. That's because homeowners know the system is working each time they use a faucet, flush a toilet or water their lawns.
In fact, some fire officials prefer multipurpose systems for this very reason: Homeowners cannot inadvertently shut off fire protection to their homes.
"If the shower is working, so is the multipurpose fire sprinkler system," says Matt Kumpe, president of Fresno Plumbing and Heating, Inc., who observes that there is no similar "verification" for standalone systems, other than annual maintenance inspections. "Multipurpose systems are far more straightforward to install and don't require costly equipment associated with traditional standalone designs."
Kumpe, a licensed fire sprinkler contractor, and his family's company are racing to keep up with sprinkler demand, and the estimated 40 single-family homes he hopes to complete this spring. As more states require this life-safety technology and individual municipalities become more acquainted with fire sprinkler designs and performance, Kumpe expects installation costs and requirements to stabilize.
COST-EFFECTIVE FIRE SAFETY
A September 2008 study by the Fire Protection Research Foundation put the average cost of residential fire sprinklers at $1.61 per square foot. In markets where fire sprinklers have become commonplace, the cost has fallen significantly. For example, in San Clemente, Calif., where residential sprinklers have been mandated since 1979, the average installation cost has dropped to $0.38 per square foot.
Although the cost of installing a fire safety system seems to be a central issue, excluding a system based on price tag could be shortsighted. According to the National Fire Protection Association, fires cause more than $8.5 billion in direct property damage every year in U.S. homes.
Not surprisingly, fire damage is far less in homes with fire sprinklers. A 15-year study in Scottsdale, Ariz., put the average fire loss for a sprinklered home at $2,166, compared with $45,019 for a home without sprinklers. And with only the sprinklers closest to the fire activating, 90 percent of fires are contained by the operation of just one sprinkler, causing a fraction of the water damage of a fire department hose.
To emphasize the effectiveness of home fire sprinklers, Hoover recalls a house fire in the San Francisco Bay Area, where the homeowner - preoccupied with laundry - was completely unaware that a fire took place.
"Our fire fighters pulled up and the homeowner didn't even realize that there was an electrical fire until she heard the alarm bell and saw the fire sprinkler extinguishing the fire," says Hoover. "Imagine a system that put out a fire before the occupant even knew there was trouble. It's like having a personal fire department on call 24/7."
Another key distinction between multipurpose and traditional standalone fire sprinkler systems is that the latter require several additional pieces of equipment to operate, contractor Matt Kumpe points out.
Standalone sprinkler systems typically need backflow prevention devices to keep the stagnant contents of the sprinkler system entirely separate from the drinking water. And, depending on the municipality, some standalone systems require a check valve or a separate water meter, which can add to the system's overall cost.
Regardless of the type of fire sprinkler system installed in a home, this life-saving technology is here to stay, concludes Acting State Fire Marshal Hoover.
"Without question, we know that fire sprinklers save lives, prevent injuries and eliminate hundreds of millions of dollars in property losses," says Hoover. "We've protected factories and office buildings with fire sprinklers for almost 100 years; it is time to put sprinklers where 80 percent of all fire deaths occur - in the home."
For more information, visit www.uponor-usa.com or call (800) 321-4739.