PUBLISHED: FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 25, 2015 AT 12:30 AM
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The debate continues over the value of built-in fire sprinklers in new home construction, a month after a proposal to require them was rejected by the New York State Fire Prevention and Building Code Council.
Firefighters dissatisfied with the move plan to continue to voice their concerns as the state Department of State leads a public-review process for an updated state Uniform Fire Prevention and Building Code, which was adopted by the council Aug. 19 without the proposed sprinkler mandate.
The council’s rejection of the mandate comes after firefighter groups argued that mandated sprinklers would save people’s lives by swiftly putting out fires. Builders, meanwhile, contended the extra cost to install low-flow automatic sprinklers in homes would turn buyers away. It should be up to homeowners, they said, to decide whether to pay for the installation of sprinklers for enhanced safety.
The council — composed of 17 governor-appointed members — decided not to include the sprinkler mandate as part of an update made to the building code. The code, last revised in 2009, was updated to include all standards in the 2015 version of the International Residential Code — except for the controversial sprinkler mandate. Builders are required to follow that mandate in only two states: California and Maryland.
The updated code adopted by the council now will undergo a public review, led by the Department of State, before it becomes law. Based on feedback from a comment period and public hearings, the department could elect to amend the code. The review process is expected to be done in early 2016.
The proposed change would have required builders to install sprinkler systems in all one- and two-family homes. The council also rejected a separate proposal that would have required sprinklers in new townhouses. The updated code, meanwhile, will continue to require builders to install sprinklers in homes with three or more stories.
Gerald R. DeLuca, executive director of the New York State Association of Fire Chiefs, said he was disappointed, but not surprised, by the council’s decision to reject the sprinkler mandate. The association represents about 7,000 career and volunteer firefighters statewide.
“I’m disappointed they chose to put the profitability of builders over safety,” he said. The sprinkler requirement “was one piece of the international code they adopted, and what they did was take out the sprinklers without making other adjustments. ... You wouldn’t take electrical safety out of the code because it costs too much, but that’s what they did with sprinklers.”
SPRINKLER COST CONTESTED
The cost to install residential sprinklers, meanwhile, has been hotly contested by firefighters and builders.
Mr. DeLuca said the National Fire Protection Association has estimated the installation cost of built-in sprinklers to be about $1.35 per square foot, which is the national average. He estimated that, on average, it would cost $2,500 to $3,000 to install sprinklers in most single- and two-family homes. And it probably would cost about an additional $2,000 for homes with wells, he said, because they may need to install either a larger well pump or a 250-gallon storage tank to support a sprinkler system.
“We’ve talked to people in the Baltimore area where sprinklers are mandated, and they said the prices were higher than when they were first required three years ago,” he said. “But as more homes were built, the prices came down to about $1 per square foot.”
But the New York Builders Association, which has about 2,500 members statewide, has estimated the installation of fire sprinklers to be “$10,000 to $20,000” per home, according to Lewis A. Dubuque, executive vice president of the association. That price range was based on estimates provided by sprinkler installers to builders.
Mr. Dubuque said that while the installation of sprinklers is highly encouraged by builders, members of the builders association believe it should be up to homeowners to decide whether to install them. The state already requires the installation of hard-wired smoke detectors in homes, he said, and homeowners shouldn’t be compelled to pay for extra safety features.
“Hard-wired smoke detectors are a cost-efficient way to keep people safe, and that’s your safety belt,” Mr. Dubuque said. “If they can afford to add sprinklers, they have that option.”
A statewide poll conducted by the Siena College Research Institute in 2014 found that 79 percent of upstate New Yorkers supported consumer choice for the installation of sprinklers.
“The public doesn’t want this because it would make it more difficult to buy new homes,” Mr. Dubuque said.
Citing statistics that appear to contradict firefighters’ arguments, Mr. Dubuque said a recent study done by the association found that fatalities from fires are occurring mostly in older homes. In 2014, fires at 52 homes statewide were responsible for at least one fatality each, according to statistics from the U.S. Fire Administration. On average, Mr. Dubuque said, those homes were built in 1935.
Mr. DeLuca, however, said results from that study shouldn’t cause people to conclude older homes are more susceptible to fatal fires.
“There are more old homes out there currently than new homes, so statistics are going to be skewed,” he said.