Randy Safer, NFPA's southern regional director, on retrofitting his home with fire sprinklers
Ever wondered what was involved in a home fire sprinkler retrofit, but were afraid to ask? Now Randy Safer, NFPA’s southern regional director, explains it all for you in his online feature on retrofitting his own home in rural Tennessee with fire sprinklers. Pictured above are Safer with his wife, Sandee, his daughter, Eliana, and the family dog, Hattie.
NFPA Journal® online exclusives, November/December 2012
By Randy Safer
I live with my wife and daughter in a rural area about 30 miles northeast of Nashville, Tennessee. Recently, we decided to retrofit our home with a fire sprinkler system, and I can tell you that the decision has given us great peace of mind. Plus, it was easier to install and less expensive than expected.
Our community is served by a volunteer fire department, which does the best it can with the resources it has. Because of the distances involved, though, I've always feared that if our house caught on fire it would burn to the ground before the fire department could arrive on scene. Our house is equipped with working smoke alarms and we have an escape plan, along with an outside meeting place. We've practiced our escape plan at different times of the day and night. Even so, I was having trouble sleeping knowing that my family and our home would be much better protected with a residential sprinkler system.
I've been in the fire service for decades, and I understand the importance of fire sprinkler systems, especially in homes. Firefighters see firsthand, nearly every day, the life safety benefits of sprinklered buildings, not just for occupants but for firefighter safety as well. For several years my wife and I discussed retrofitting our home with a fire sprinkler system installed according to NFPA 13D, Installation of Sprinkler Systems in One- and Two-Family Dwellings and Manufactured Homes, but we kept putting it off, concerned that our three-level house would be difficult and very expensive to retrofit.
We finally contacted a sprinkler design company, and we were pleasantly surprised to learn that they could install the system with very little sheetrock patching or other repairs that are often needed after retrofit jobs. Although not required in the standard, I also wanted three sprinklers installed in my garage. The bid came back at $1.50 per square sprinklered foot; the going rate for sprinkler installation in new construction in our area is around $1.10. Both of those amounts are several dollars per square foot lower than what residential sprinkler opponents have stated at many hearings I've attended over the past three years.
The installation went faster and smoother than I had anticipated. To assist in the system's design, I provided a set of house plans to our contractor, Robby Cromwell of S.C.C. Sprinklers in Hermitage, Tennessee, and the S.C.C. project manager, Joe 'Tiger' Tubbs. Two S.C.C. installers-brothers William 'Lizard' Graves and Ricky 'Gator' Graves-showed up on a Monday morning and immediately headed for the basement, to a small storage room just off of the garage, where the water line enters the house. It was obvious that they had studied the house and sprinkler installation plans. Within a few minutes they proceeded to measure and cut pipe and began installing the pipe in the dropped ceiling in the basement. This was by far the easiest area to complete.
From there, they accessed the main floor by running pipe from the basement up through the return air system and a coat closet in the foyer. From that pipe, the foyer/hall and master bedroom were reached with sidewall sprinklers. To get to the kitchen, pipe was run through our mudroom to an attic area on the 2nd floor. From this pipe, the rest of the main floor and the entire top floor were reached.
The most challenging room to access on the main floor was the living room, which by code required two sprinkler heads based on the room's area and configuration. There were two options: tear into sheetrock or access the living room ceiling from above by pulling up part of the flooring in an upstairs bedroom. I chose to pull up the flooring. After moving the furniture out of the room I pulled the carpet and pad back and sawed an 8-inch-wide opening in the sub-floor. Holes were then drilled in the ceiling joists for the living room below, and the pipe was run. After the system was tested, I glued and nailed the flooring back and reinstalled the pad and carpet.
Other rooms presented a few challenges, too. Our house has several rooflines, which made the installation of some of the sprinklers somewhat tricky, including the dining room. The only access to the space above the dining room ceiling, where we wanted to install the sprinklers, was from a second-floor attic space. An opening from that second-floor space leads down into an attic space directly above the dining room, but it was too small for either Gator or Lizard to fit through. The problem was solved by enlisting the help of their smaller cousin, a gentleman who went by the nickname 'Worm,' who was lowered by straps through the opening and onto the ceiling joists of the dining room below, where he was able to install the sprinkler pipe.
The installation that began Monday was completed on Friday morning. I was very impressed and surprised that we did not have any sheetrock repair. I was also surprised by the simplicity of a 13D system. A friend and I did the plumbing when I built our house, and after watching the installation of this sprinkler system I can safely say that it's a lot less complicated and a lot easier to install than the plumbing system.
The main water line coming into the house had a pressure reducer valve, which meant we would not have met the flow requirements for what's known as a "combination" system, which is one that ties the sprinkler system directly into the household plumbing system. (Even so, we were able to tie the sprinkler system into the toilets in the basement and on the top floor so that water in the system moves every time the toilets are flushed, providing another precaution against freezing in the top-floor attic space, which is also very well insulated. Pressure reducers were also installed on the lines going to the toilets.) By opting for an NFPA 13D design, we were able to connect the sprinkler system to the water line before it reached the pressure reducer, ensuring the system met the flow requirements in the code without having to use a pump or auxiliary tank. A single fire sprinkler can be effective using as little as 8 gallons-per-minute (gpm). With home fire sprinkler systems typically designed to accommodate two simultaneously flowing sprinklers, a flow of 16 gpm may be all that's needed. A typical 5/8-inch water meter will flow up to 20 gpm, which is adequate to operate a fire sprinkler system in many homes, and a ¾-inch meter can flow more than 30 gpm. Our 1-inch meter easily met the requirements for our sprinkler system.
Maintenance for the new system is very simple. Every few days-this should be done at least monthly-I walk through the house and visually inspect all of the sprinkler heads to make sure that nothing is obstructing them and to check for any leaks. I also periodically check the pressure on the riser and ensure that all valves are completely open, since a valve that is even partially closed reduces water flow to the head. Care must be taken with exposed sprinkler heads, too; when you're painting, for example, always cover the sprinkler head with a bag and remove it immediately after the painting is completed.
I strongly urge all homeowners to look into retrofitting your home with an NFPA 13D sprinkler system. Like me, you may be surprised by the affordability of the system and the simplicity of the installation and maintenance. I also encourage anyone in the market for a new home to search for those with NFPA 13D sprinkler systems. If you're building, it would be easier and less expensive to have an NFPA 13D system installed in your home. Since all model codes require new one- and two-family homes to be equipped with residential sprinkler systems, any new home built without this requirement is being built to substandard construction.
All in all, we are very pleased with our system and surprised by the low cost. My daughter and my wife feel much safer-and I sleep much better.
Randy Safer is southern regional director for NFPA.