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Author(s): Matt Klaus. Published on March 1, 2016.

Straight Facts

Debunking homebuilder myths about home sprinklers

BY MATT KLAUS

ONE OF THE GREATEST CHALLENGES we face in trying to get automatic sprinklers installed in single-family homes is dispelling the myths and misconceptions about these systems. While the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition (HFSC) and NFPA’s Fire Sprinkler Initiative have done a marvelous job of putting accurate and up-to-date information at our fingertips, gaps remain in the information supply chain that the Internet simply can’t bridge.

To that end, the HFSC and NFPA staff, myself included, worked to close those gaps at the recent International Builders Show, held in January in Las Vegas. What better way to dispel myths than with face-to-face discussions? We found that many homebuilders, developers, and general contractors had preconceived notions about these systems that were based on bad information. Here are a few sprinkler myths:

Sprinklers are too expensive.

The most common concern of builders was that home sprinklers simply cost too much. Some homebuilders we talked to, despite never having gone through the process, were adamant that systems would cost as much as $10 per square foot for new construction. The Fire Protection Research Foundation recently updated its residential sprinkler system cost analysis and determined that the average cost is roughly $1.35 per sprinklered square foot, with amounts varying regionally.

We have heard of instances where installation costs hit $5 or $6 per square foot, usually the result of an authority having jurisdiction mandating property-protection features of NFPA 13 in an NFPA 13D design, which is intended primarily for life safety. Expanding the focus from life safety to life safety and property protection will naturally come with a cost increase, but it also reshapes the scope of the system beyond its intended function. It is important that AHJs understand the purpose of these systems and that adding bells and whistles does not necessarily improve life safety—but will drive up costs.

Sprinklers are ugly.

Homebuilders also told us that their clients don’t want “ugly brass sprinklers” creating eyesores in their beautifully crafted homes. When the detractors were shown concealed sprinkler covers painted “ceiling white” or patterned with a wood-grain finish to match cabinetry, most of them acknowledged that the aesthetic hurdle was already being addressed by manufacturers and probably wouldn’t be an issue for most homeowners. Many of the builders we talked to were shocked by how seamlessly concealed sprinklers blended into a home’s interior, just as electrical outlets and light switches do.

Sprinklers are complicated.

Many of the participants in our discussions and demonstrations were concerned that the systems are too complicated to install and that homeowners would be overwhelmed by the amount of maintenance they required. After walking them through a mock-up of a sprinkler system, though, it became evident to them that a sprinkler system is similar in many ways to a domestic plumbing system: the fundamentals of both include a water supply, piping network, control valves, and an end-of-line appliance, in this case a fire sprinkler.

Additionally, NFPA 13D does not require extensive maintenance, inspection, or testing, and most maintenance is handled no differently than that associated with domestic appliances like dishwashers and washing machines; when in doubt, homeowners can simply call a plumber or service provider.

While we weren’t surprised by the concerns we encountered at the Las Vegas show, it was refreshing to see so many participants take the time to better understand the systems and leave our exhibit with a new, fact-based perspective on home fire sprinklers. It is my hope that, as we continue to educate people, there will be an even greater level of acceptance of home fire sprinklers.

MATT KLAUS is principal fire protection engineer at NFPA and staff liaison for NFPA 13, 13R, & 13D.