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Author(s): Matt Klaus. Published on September 1, 2017.

In Compliance | NFPA 13

Should plumbers be permitted to install home fire sprinklers?


Many jurisdictions that either require or allow home sprinklers to be installed are struggling with the question of who is qualified to install them. NFPA 13D, Installation of Sprinkler Systems in One- and Two-Family Dwellings and Manufactured Homes, the standard that governs the installation of home sprinkler systems, simply states that any individual performing the design and installation of home sprinkler systems must be knowledgeable and trained in such systems. Because NFPA 13D does not address licensure, the authority having jurisdiction is the person who determines who is qualified and therefore permitted to install the system. Because every state has different licensure requirements, the standard leaves it to the individual jurisdictions to decide.

Ultimately, there are two different schools of thought on this issue. The first is that, because many states only permit licensed sprinkler contractors to install systems designed to NFPA 13, Installation of Sprinkler Systems, or NFPA 13R, Installation of Sprinkler Systems in Low-Rise Residential Occupancies, this concept should be applied to NFPA 13D as well. The other side of the argument is that plumbers, who are already on-site installing domestic systems, should also be permitted to install NFPA 13D systems.

The idea of allowing plumbers to install NFPA 13D systems is based on a few principles that have been discussed by the technical committee for residential sprinkler systems.

The first is the simplicity of the NFPA 13D system when compared to larger commercial systems. Sprinkler systems designed and installed to NFPA 13 can be fairly complex and employ system components or installation practices that are unique to fire sprinkler systems. NFPA 13D systems, by comparison, are rather simple. NFPA 13D contains few requirements for system attachments beyond a control valve, piping, a drain connection, and the sprinkler itself.

Another reason why plumbers are often deemed qualified to install these systems is their familiarity with the material used in home sprinkler systems. Unlike NFPA 13 and NFPA 13R, NFPA 13D permits the use of copper and polyethylene PEX tubing to be used throughout the system. These materials, along with CPVC, which is used in all three types of sprinkler systems, are used on a daily basis by many plumbers for supplying domestic fixtures. The plumbers’ general familiarity with these materials and their joining methods can create efficiencies in the installation.

Those efficiencies lead to the final argument for allowing plumbers to install the systems: cost. A goal of the technical committee responsible for NFPA 13D is to create a system that provides a high level of life safety while keeping design and installation costs at a reasonable level. During the development of the 2013 edition of NFPA 13D, there was considerable discussion around the question of who is qualified to work on these systems and, more specifically, whether it’s the intent of the standard to allow plumbers to install these systems. While the standard doesn’t specifically state who can install them—it leaves that to the jurisdictions—the committee was clear that it did not want to be overly restrictive on who could be involved in the NFPA 13D process, as that approach could contribute to higher installation costs.

One of the arguments made in support of this less-restrictive approach was that because plumbers are already on the site installing domestic systems, and because many of the materials they use to install these systems are already employed on the site, allowing them to install the system could reduce labor, material, and jobsite overhead.

It is important to keep in mind that neither NFPA nor the technical committee responsible for NFPA 13D provide the direction on who is qualified and what licensure must be held to install the system. This is done at the jurisdictional level and may differ state-to-state or town-to-town. While this debate continues to develop, it is important for designers and contractors to be aware of the requirements of the jurisdictions they work in.

MATT KLAUS is NFPA technical services lead for fire protection engineering.