Should all new homes built in New York state be equipped with automatic fire sprinkler systems?
That’s the question being debated right now by the state’s Sprinkler Task Force, an eight-member subcommittee of the New York State Building Code Council.
The Code Council is slated to vote on the matter Feb. 13, and if the outcome is in favor of the building code requirement, the recommendation will proceed to the governor’s office. Should Gov. Andrew Cuomo give it his stamp of approval, the measure could be enacted as soon as May 2014.
Proponents say the additional safety feature will save lives, while those against it say mandatory sprinkler systems are an unnecessary expense that will adversely affect the housing market.
California and Maryland are the only two states that require sprinkler systems in all new residential construction.
According to the American Fire Sprinkler Association, automatic fire sprinklers have been in use in the U.S. since 1874 and are widely recognized as the single most effective method for fighting the spread of fires in their early stages — before they can cause severe injury or significant property damage.
A home fire sprinkler system is made up of a network of piping that is installed behind walls and ceilings. Individual sprinklers are placed along the piping, and in the event of fire, the ones closest to the flames will turn on once the air temperature rises to a certain point. Smoke alone won’t cause them to activate.
Schenectady Fire Chief Michael DellaRocco said the fire professionals he’s been in contact with are overwhelmingly in favor of the code requirement.
“There’s no question that sprinkler systems save lives and it would be great if whenever there was a modification of an existing building or construction of a new building that a sprinkler system be put into place,” he commented.
He conceded that smoke detectors can also save lives, but said every day he sees smoke detectors that people have disabled.
“I even had a landlord tell me this week that his tenants ripped the smoke detectors right out of the wall, and those were hard-wired,” he recounted in a phone interview on Jan. 16. “People being people, the more that we can do to ensure their safety, the better off we all will be.”
Sprinkler systems can also save property and reduce insurance claims, he said.
According to the current building code, new homes must be equipped with hard-wired, interconnected smoke detectors that have a battery back-up. When smoke is detected in any room, every alarm in the home goes off.
Shouldn’t be mandate
That safety measure, combined with other recently instituted safety requirements for new residential construction projects, is enough to keep homeowners very safe, said Annemarie Mitchell, CEO of Legacy Timber Frames in Stillwater and a member of the Sprinkler Task Force.
“Anybody has the option to install sprinklers if they want. I do not believe it should be mandated,” she said.
Fire sprinklers aren’t activated by smoke, so they wouldn’t make a difference in a smoldering fire, she reasoned, noting that people often die from smoke inhalation.
A sprinkler code requirement would be devastating to her business, she said, because it’s nearly impossible to hide the required pipes in a timber frame home.
As vice president of the Capital Region Builders and Remodelers Association, she said she has heard a lot of discussion about whether fire sprinklers should be mandatory in new homes.
“I am not aware of a single builder who thinks this is a good idea. I know that there are some builders who have developments where they give sprinklers as a standard option to their homes and they’ve not had a single person who has opted to have sprinklers in their homes,” she said.
Builder Todd Stewart, who owns Stewart Construction in Burnt Hills, builds between three and eight custom homes each year, mainly in southern Saratoga County. He said he’s not opposed to fire sprinklers, but is opposed to a code requirement for them.
“It’s hard enough to afford a house as it is now,” he said, noting that the price range for residential sprinkler systems varies widely depending on a home’s location, size and the availability of municipal water.
“Low end is a couple thousand. High end is $12,000 to $15,000,” he estimated.
The majority of the homes Stewart builds use a well for a water source, which makes installing a sprinkler system more complicated. In order for the system to work properly, the water that’s fed to it must remain at a constant pressure. When using a public water supply that’s not an issue, but water pressure varies when a well is in use. So, a holding tank containing a separate pump must be installed, along with a backup power system, to be used in case of a power outage.
Lewis Dubuque, executive vice president of the New York State Builders Association, said the added cost of mandatory sprinkler systems in new homes would have a devastating effect on the housing market in the Capital Region.
“Last year, for the first time since the housing bubble burst, we finally have seen single-family homes increase from one year to the next. If we’re going to be implementing a $5,000 to $10,000 mandate on new homes, that’s just going to destroy the market. Our national association has done research that for every $1,000 you increase the price of a home, say in the Capital Region, you’re knocking 500 to 600 people out of the housing market. That’s 500 to 600 more people who have no access to the American dream.”
Dominick Kasmauskas, associate director of regional operations for the National Fire Sprinkler Association and a member of the Sprinkler Task Force, said he does not believe the addition of sprinkler systems will be a financial burden to home buyers.
“Selling and buying homes doesn’t work that simply. It’s all about what the local market and the economics will bear. It has nothing to do with the price of sprinklers. A $200,000 home with sprinklers is going to sell for $200,000 without sprinklers. It depends on the market,” he said.
Insurance costs are less for homes with sprinkler systems, he noted.
“It’s across the board, anywhere from 5 to 13 percent, depending on what type of system you put in,” he estimated, adding that research shows a sprinkler system also improves a home’s resale value.
Water damage from malfunctioning sprinkler systems, which could cost homeowners plenty, happens rarely and is covered by homeowners insurance, he said.
Developers have the opportunity to save money when they create neighborhoods that consist entirely of homes with sprinkler systems, he said.
“Instead of having a hydrant every 500 feet, they can be every 1,000 feet. Road widths could be smaller because you’re not worried about having half a dozen fire apparatus battling a fire in a single-family home in a sprinkler community,” he explained.
The sprinkler code requirement, if approved, will only affect new homes, but that’s not where most fatal fires occur, Dubuque noted.
“Our research and education foundation did a study a few years back that the average age of a home where there was a fatality in New York state, the home was built in 1940,” he explained. “This is trying to solve the problem at the back end. The problem we have is older homes that are not built up to code. But if the state were to mandate that we had to put fire sprinklers in already built homes, then people would be with pitchforks and torches at the next Code Council meeting.”
According to Dubuque, the Builders Association is in favor of a compromise on the proposed code requirement: mandating that builders give prospective new home buyers information on fire sprinklers.
“If they choose not to have them added to their home, that’s their choice,” he said. “We’ll be the biggest promoters of fire sprinklers in the state. We just feel that the market is not there for it.”