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The loss of hundreds of lives in well-publicized hotel and other big building fires has inspired most building codes to mandate the installation of fire sprinklers in commercial buildings. Yet more than three-quarters of fire deaths and more than half of all property damage occurs with home fires. The fire fighting community is in absolute agreement that nothing offers better protection against fires than automatic fire sprinkler systems. They have been pushing hard to have them installed in residences as well as commercial buildings.

So why don't more homes have fire sprinklers?

The simple answer is that they cost money - though not as much as you might think, and certainly not that much in relation to the life saving value they provide. Most estimates of residential sprinkler systems range around $1 to $1.50 per square foot of coverage, adding about 1% to the total cost of a new home. Unfortunately, it could cost twice as much or more to retrofit fire sprinklers into existing homes.

However, residential fire sprinklers also provide the opportunity for savings that help pay back their cost. For instance, many building codes allow for the substitution of cheaper, less fire resistant materials for homes equipped with fire sprinklers. Property insurance rates also decline, and in some communities so do property taxes, because of the reduced need for fire department and other emergency services. There also are land use savings from narrower street widths, fewer fire hydrants, etc.

Scores of communities around the country now require fire sprinklers in all new homes. However in many more locales similar ordinances have been defeated thanks to fierce resistance from home builders worried about the added cost to their product. Although fire sprinkling systems tend to cost less than a whirlpool tub, fancy landscaping, a fireplace or many other frills that builders don't hesitate to sell, they claim that fire sprinklers do not have as much "sex appeal" to potential buyers. It's mostly invisible piping behind the walls. All it does is save lives.

Builders say they also encounter home buyer resistance owing to some common misconceptions about fire sprinklers, as follows:

* Accidental discharge. There were some problems with the earliest models of residential sprinkler heads developed 15-20 years ago, but nowadays accidental discharge is virtually unheard of. Modern sprinkler heads do not react to smoke but to heat, usually within seconds of sensing a temperature of 135 degrees fahrenheit or higher. Unlike a smoke detector, they won't get triggered by kitchen cooking unless someone is silly enough to install a sprinkler head above the stove.

* If one goes off, they all go off. Absolutely untrue. Fire sprinkler heads are individually activated. A fire in one part of the house will cause no activation elsewhere unless the fire spreads. Even then, sprinklers would cause less damage than a fire department's high pressure water hoses.

* Sprinkler heads are ugly. Modern residential sprinkler heads come in various shapes and colors to blend unobtrusively with a variety of interiors. Many are "drop-down" units that are recessed into the ceiling until activated.

* Smoke detectors are just as good and a lot cheaper. Smoke detectors can only warn you of danger. Fire sprinklers put out the fire. Unlike smoke detectors, they protect infants, the elderly and the disabled, who often cannot respond to smoke detectors and are disproportionately fire death victims. Smoke is a bigger killer than fire itself. Automatic fire sprinklers suppress fires in the early stage before smoke builds up to hazardous levels. Studies show that smoke detectors increase the odds of survival in a residential fire by 50%, while residential sprinklers boost the odds to about 90%.

* Fire sprinklers may leak. Of all the piping systems in the home, fire sprinklers are the least likely to spring a leak because codes require much higher pressure ratings for sprinkler pipe than for household water supply and drainage lines. It's mysterious why people brush off the possibility of these pipes leaking - as occasionally happens - yet get concerned about more watertight sprinkler systems.

Except for the added cost, there are few down sides to residential fire sprinkler systems. One unexpected problem arose after the 1993 earthquake in Northridge, CA, when insurers found themselves inundated with water damage claims from broken sprinkler pipes - mainly in office buildings with poorly designed systems. However, from a home owner's perspective, potential soaking from sprinklers is a low-grade concern amid all the other ramifications of a severe earthquake. It might even forestall more serious fire damage.

Many communities require sprinkler installers to have special licenses beyond normal plumbing capabilities. While it is not an extremely high tech undertaking, fire sprinkling does require some special design and mechanical capabilities. You don't want to use an inexperienced firm for this type of job.

Ultimately, the answer to our question - Why don't more homes have fire sprinklers? - boils down mostly to reasons that are not very good ones. Fire sprinklers are proven to save more lives and property than any other method of fire protection. Home sprinkling is an idea whose time hasn't yet come on a widespread basis - but ought to.




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