Author(s): Stephanie Schorow. Published on October 1, 2016.

Supply Side

Why water purveyors are ignoring the myths and embracing home sprinklers as allies of municipal water supplies


STU FEINGLAS, a senior water resources analyst for the town of Westminster, Colorado, could not be more blunt. About two years after this city of 110,000 adopted requirements for home fire sprinklers in new construction of one- and two-family homes, there has been “zero” impact on the city’s water supply, Feinglas said.

“We had concerns at first because we didn’t know what would happen,” said Feinglas, a water analyst for the last 15 years, who supported adopting new rules for home sprinklers as a life-safety issue. “Like any utility, we had a pricing structure set up. As we worked through that, we realized sprinklers didn’t make a difference. Single-family homes with sprinklers were going to use water like any single-family home.”

Yet one of the deterrents to greater acceptance of home fire sprinklers by both homeowners and builders has been the supposed added cost of water. As a result, many water purveyors concerned about the effect on municipal water systems charge a substantial initial installation fee and/or annual quarterly “standby” fees for residential sprinklers. Charges can run into the thousands of dollars, said Jeffery Hudson, an NFPA regional sprinkler specialist.

The extra costs discourage the installation of home fire sprinklers and do not make economic sense, said Tim Travers, an NFPA regional sprinkler specialist and previously a member of the fire service. Some water purveyors “see installation of home fire sprinklers as a money-making proposition,” he said.

Hudson has been working with the Oregon Fire Sprinkler Coalition on a workgroup to examine how local water purveyors assess and collect fees for home sprinklers. The group hopes to encourage the state legislature to pass regulations preventing water purveyors from assessing special charges or development fees for home fire sprinkler installation. “A lot of it is a matter of educating people involved in making these policy decisions,” Hudson said. “There are still a few myths out there about the impact of home sprinklers on municipal water supply, but that’s all they are—myths.”

Water myths, water realities

When water purveyors first encounter the possibility of home fire sprinkler requirements in their communities, many are uninformed on the basics of home sprinklers. In many cases, they don’t realize that home systems are much different from commercial and industrial sprinklers, even if the underlying technology is similar. That’s why the national non-profit Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition (HFSC) has created material and brochures specifically for water purveyors to help dispel myths and misperceptions around sprinklers.

For example, sprinklers in homes operate individually and only in response to the high heat from fire; the sprinklers don’t all activate together, and they don’t activate in response to smoke. In most home fires, only one sprinkler is needed to control the fire, according to the HFSC.

Compared to the amount of water used by firefighters on a typical home fire, home sprinklers reduce the water needed to fight a fire by as much as 90 percent, according to a study conducted by the insurer FM Global for the HFSC. Home fire sprinklers generally emit about 15 gallons of water a minute for seven to 10 minutes when triggered by the high heat of a fire; by comparison, a fire hose sprays 150 to 180 gallons a minute for 10 to 20 minutes, said Rick Ennis, chief of the Cape Girardeau, Missouri, Fire Department. “That’s an order of magnitude difference,” he said. “It’s also the difference between very little property damage due to water versus significant damage from water.”

Landscape photo of a river running alongside a town

Water purveyors are embracing home sprinklers for a number of reasons, including the environmental benefits they provide by limiting water use in the event of a fire and reducing the amount of potentially toxic runoff. Photograph: AP/Wide World

Keith Flood, the fire marshal in West Haven, Connecticut, cites a fire earlier this year in a large, relatively new house in the nearby town of Avon; 280,000 gallons of water were used to extinguish the blaze. In cases like this, though, municipalities don’t calculate the amount of water used on a fire, and they don’t send a bill to homeowners. What communities should do, however, according to Flood and other home sprinkler advocates, is to give residents rebates or other types of rewards for installing home fire sprinklers, because in the long run they will use far less water in the event of a fire.

Another common misconception surrounding home sprinklers is that they can drain water supplies, even if they are never used or in the rare event that they develop a leak. This fails to take into account the fact that home fire sprinklers are comparable to bathroom showerheads and are no more likely to leak than any other form of home plumbing, said Flood, who organized a water summit last year that brought together water purveyors, fire service professionals, builders, and municipal officials.

Most sprinklers do not require a separate water line; they can be installed using a home’s normal water service line, Flood said. Yet some communities require (and charge for) an additional water line, and some require different, larger (and more expensive) water meters.

“I think there’s a stigma that home fire sprinklers need a lot of maintenance and are costly to maintain,” Hudson said. “The opposite is true.”

Tackling logistics

NFPA 13D, Installation of Sprinkler Systems in One- and Two-Family Dwellings and Manufactured Homes, permits two kinds of home sprinklers: stand-alone systems, in which the sprinkler system is independent of the home’s plumbing system, and multipurpose systems, in which the sprinkler system is combined with the home’s cold water supply and plumbing. Most home fire sprinklers are connected to the domestic water supply. Where public water is not available or pressure is insufficient, a well or a tank and pump can be used for water supply; this is a practical option for rural homes that are not connected to municipal water systems. A water flow test is recommended every six months and can be easily performed by the resident.

A more realistic concern for municipalities that are considering mandating home sprinklers is the potential contamination from stagnant or otherwise compromised water in home systems or tanks—water that doesn’t affect sprinkler performance but that in some cases may present an environmental concern. Such issues can, however, be addressed with backflow preventers. These mechanisms are not required by NFPA 13D, part of the standard’s goal of making installation simple while keeping costs low, but may be required by local code. One approach that eliminates the need for a backflow preventer is to connect the sprinkler system to the toilet tank located the greatest distance from the water supply. With each flush, water is drawn through the sprinkler line, according to the HFSC.

Municipal water facility

Home sprinklers have been found to have no impact on municipal water supplies. Photograph: iStockPhoto

Another consideration is that when home sprinklers are employed in the event of a fire, the resulting wastewater has fewer persistent pollutants, such as heavy metals, and fewer solids. A study by FM Global for HFSC found that sprinklers can reduce fire damage by up to 97 percent, which means less waste is sent to landfills.

Other logistical issues related to water can be surmounted. For example, when Westminster, Colorado, adopted its new codes in 2010, implementation of the single-family detached fire sprinkler section was deferred until January 2013. “This was because state rules at the time only allowed pipefitters to install the sprinkler systems,” Feinglas said. “Since multipurpose systems were part of a plumbing system, the state had to have time to modify rules to allow for plumbers to install fire sprinkler systems as a part of the plumbing system.” The issue was resolved, and since then 286 homes have been built with sprinklers installed; about 90 percent of them are stand-alone systems.

Before California became the first U.S. state to mandate the installation of sprinklers in all new one- and two-family dwellings, in January 2011, major legwork was needed. “We created three task-force groups and brought together many folks and key players,” said Tonya Hoover, the former state fire marshal for California, in a 2014 interview with NFPA Journal. “Our California Building Industry Association was at the table; we had water purveyors at the table; we had builders, we had fire protection engineers, we had building officials and fire officials. We tried to make sure that we were hearing from as many folks as possible, not just the good of home fire sprinklers, but maybe some of the more challenging pieces.”

The result? “It took about a minute and a half to adopt the package when we went before the building standards commission on January 12, 2010,” Hoover said.

To Feinglas, the benefits of home sprinklers vastly outweigh logistical issues or concerns about their use. That’s why Westminster charges neither a fee for installing home sprinklers nor an annual or monthly extra usage fee. After some initial reluctance, both residents and builders have come to accept, and in many cases embrace, the new requirements, Feinglas said.

And if it’s further evidence you need, Feinglas has that, too. “Construction is booming,” he said.

STEPHANIE SCHOROW is a writer based in Boston. Top Photograph:iStockPhoto