In the View From Up North, we’ve covered quite a bit of the code changes relating to energy efficiency and how they affect new homes, especially log homes. Another lesser-known element to the International Code Council’s guidelines is the addition of a requirement for residential fire sprinkler units (It is the ICC that developed the guidelines for the IECC 2009 efficiency requirements.)

The fire sprinkler recommendation was first added to the residential codebooks in 2009 and language has remained in the upcoming 2012 editions to ICC’s guidelines. However, unlike the IECC 2009 energy codes, which became enforceable in all 50 states, the fire sprinkler code requirements are only enforceable if a town or municipality includes the language in their own local code ordinance.

Because of this loose enforcement, a patchwork of fire sprinkler code requirements have been developing over the past three years. Some municipalities have included the code requirements, while many others have decided not to. To date only California and Maryland have mandated fire sprinkler systems in single-family construction, with most other states keeping the installation of a fire sprinkler system an optional decision for the homeowner. However, some local municipalities are considering whether to include fire sprinkler requirements in their building codes, so it pays to check out the local ordinances before purchasing land, if you have a preference.

Saving homes from fire
So what’s the big deal? Everyone wants to be safe from fire, right? The issue for many people comes down to a risk-reward ratio. We spoke to Steve Orlowski, from the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) to get some basic information about these fire sprinkler systems.

Fire sprinkler systems can add a substantial cost to the plumbing portion of your home’s cost—as much as $5,000 to $10,000 depending on the home’s square footage, and water supply, he said. The codes are quite complicated, and according to some experts, not entirely clear on the best way to construct a safe fire sprinkler system. For traditional log homes with cathedral ceilings constructed using truss and purlin systems, a fire sprinkler system can become both complicated and costly, if an action plan is not developed early on in the design.  The same features that make Katahdin’s Energy Envelope System easier and more cost efficient for in-wall electrical and plumbing installations should also apply to fire sprinkler systems and allow for the use of approved flexible and PVC tubing.

Piping for sprinkler systems can be approved PVC or flexible tubing, provided the piping is behind a wall surface. For exposed sprinkler systems, the pipes must be rigid metal, either copper or black steel, Orlowski said.  The sprinkler heads must be installed so that the spray has no obstructions to block the water distribution, and so must be placed on either side of a log truss from a location near the peak of the roof.

The water pressure available to the fire sprinkler system must also be taken into account, as well as the availability for on-demand flow. For some homeowners on private wells, that might include incorporating large water holding tanks and pumps.

Modern sprinkler systems are much different than the impression most of us carry in our heads. When activated, the systems produce no deluge of water. In fact, most sprinkler heads use a heavy mist to water down surfaces and starve the fire of fuel and oxygen. It’s worth noting that because fire sprinklers are installed only on the interior, a fire originating on the exterior of the home will not be extinguished.

What are the benefits?
Yes, fire sprinklers can save lives. But the actual real-life benefits are minimal. According the NAHB website, today the survival rate for a home with no fire protection is 98.87%. With the addition of a smoke detector, that survival figure rises to 99.45%. A private sprinkler system installed in a single family home only increases the survival rate to 99.76%, a difference of less than a percentage point. Today’s new homes are much better built, and better protected than homes built even 20 years ago, so fire fatalities have dropped dramatically and leveled off as a result. Most residential fire fatalities result from cigarette smoking, arson, and other causes.

Some homeowners’ insurance offers rebates or discounts for installation of home sprinkler systems, but there are many that don’t. It pays to shop around if you opt for a fire sprinkler system in your new home. Also ask about accidental discharge coverage and what kind of maintenance will be required to qualify for payment should an accidental discharge occur.

If You Choose to Add Fire Sprinklers
Fire sprinkler systems are quite complicated to configure and install. Make sure your plumber is certified by the National Fire Protection Association or the American Fire Safety Association. Both organizations conduct training and have certification programs to ensure proper design and installation in your home. You’ll also want to let your Katahdin dealer or representative know early in the design process that you plan to install a sprinkler system. Special chases and/or interior wall designs can be adjusted to accommodate the additional piping.

Fire sprinklers can provide added benefit in certain situations, but their installation in residential homes seems to have an uneven and relatively small, overall advantage.