Sunday, December 15, 2013

N.J. Senate panel advances bill to require fire sprinklers in most new homes


Christopher Baxter/The Star-LedgerBy Christopher Baxter/The Star-Ledger 
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on December 12, 2013 at 12:45 PM, updated December 12, 2013 at 4:31 PM
TRENTON — A Senate panel today advanced legislation that would require fire sprinklers to be installed in most new homes in New Jersey, a measure backed by sprinkler companies and firefighting agencies across the state, but opposed by the largest builders association.
The bill (S2273), advanced 3-0 by the upper house's Community and Urban Affairs Committee, would require sprinklers in all new single and two-family homes built in New Jersey, but would exempt those connected to wells as well as manufactured homes.
A companion bill was passed 44-30 earlier this year by the state Assembly. The Senate version now goes to the Budget and Appropriations Committee for consideration.
"It took a major fire at Seton Hall for us to enact the first mandatory residence hall fire sprinkler law," said Sen. Donald Norcross (D-Camden), a sponsor. "We shouldn’t legislate around tragedies when we can avoid them with commonsense safeguards.”
Fire safety officials overwhelmingly support the legislation, saying the systems have been proven to save lives and limit property damage caused by blazes. But opponents fear adding thousands of dollars to new home construction could hurt the economy.
"It is a difficult choice because we're concerned about cost and concerned about affordable housing, and there is an expense related to it," said Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D-Cape May), the panel's chairman. "There's also the concern for safety."
The cost of sprinkler systems vary widely, depending on the size of the house and the water source. A 2008 report by the Fire Protection Research Foundation found that sprinklers can cost from 38 cents to $3.66 per square foot, with an average of about $1.61 per square foot.
New homes built in the Northeast in 2010 had an average 2,613 square feet, according to the U.S. Census, making the average price of a sprinkler system about $4,200, which advocates point out is only a fraction of the total home price.
"I don’t see how you can look at the cost here," said Sen. Brian Stack (D-Union), the mayor of Union City. "Somebody’s life has to outweigh the cost. While I respect the economy, it's not a difficult decision for me at all."
A lobbyist for the New Jersey Builders Association, Jeff Kolakowski, said forcing more people to install smoke detectors would do far more to deter loss of life for a fraction of the cost. He noted the bill does not cover existing homes that pose the greatest threat.
"We’re not making the argument sprinklers will not save lives," Kolakowski said. "They certainly will, but under limited circumstances."
Sen. Samuel Thompson (R-Middlesex), who abstained from the vote, acknowledged the value of sprinklers but said the decision to spend significant money to install them should be left to homeowners.
"What we’re deciding here is whether we are going to dictate, 'No, you cannot make the decision, you must have it in your home,'" Thompson said. "I prefer to leave that prerogative to them considering the expense."
Lawmakers in New Jersey have advocated for the sprinkler requirements for at least a decade, but with no success. An identical bill last year stalled before a final vote. Similar requirements are already in place in California and Maryland.
A residential sprinkler mandate took effect in Pennsylvania in 2011, but was quickly repealed by the Legislature and Republican Gov. Tom Corbett.
In 2010, the Christie administration scuttled an effort to require residential sprinklers when it chose not to implement the provision included in the 2009 International Residential Code. The state feared the added cost would impede a housing recovery.


• N.J. Assembly panel passes bill requiring sprinkler systems in new homes
• Editorial: Mandatory sprinkler systems for new homes would save lives
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