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Myths vs facts about home fire sprinklers

When considering home fire sprinkler requirements for your community, it is important to address key myths often raised by sprinkler opponents. The fact is, because automatic fire sprinklers have been commonly used in structures for many years, the evidence is clear that this technology a proven way to protect lives and property against fires. Sprinklers also respond quickly and effectively to the presence of a nearby fire, and function well, without creating problems for homeowners.

Download a PDF highlighting many of these myths and facts.

Home fire sprinkler myths


MYTH: “A smoke alarm provides enough protection.”

Matt Klaus, NFPA's principal fire protection engineer, counters this popular myth

FACT: Smoke alarms alert occupants to the presence of danger, but do nothing to extinguish the fire. Home fire sprinklers respond quickly to reduce heat, flames, and smoke from a fire, giving residents valuable time to get out safely. Having a working smoke alarm cuts the chances of dying in a reported fire in half. However, if you have a reported fire in your home, the risk of dying decreases by about 80% when sprinklers are present.

Fire sprinkler opponents have been using a statistic of 99.45% to illustrate the effectiveness of smoke alarms in reducing home fire deaths. This NFPA statistic estimates the likelihood of surviving a home fire when a working smoke alarm is present. 

A 100% chance of dying would mean that every fire is fatal, or, roughly, 100 deaths per 100 fires. Fortunately, that is not the case. The chances of surviving a reported home fire when working smoke alarms are present is 99.45% (100 minus 0.55) vs. 98.87% (100 minus 1.13) in home fires with no working smoke alarms. The first number is barely higher than the second.

The 99.45% vs. 98.87% statistic is based on “chances of survival” which is not the same thing as “risk of fire death” based on total number of reported fires. Chances of survival don’t have much bearing in the discussion; preventing home fire death and reducing home fire death risk is the goal.

Consider this:

  • Each year, over 2,300 home fire deaths occur in more than 365,000 reported structure fires. Therefore, the likelihood of surviving a home fire is approximately 99% without regard to the presence of smoke alarms or any other fire safety provisions. Does that mean 2,300 deaths are acceptable? Most people would say no.  
  • Each year, there are an estimated 12,000 deaths due to falls in homes and an estimated 11 million fall injuries in the home.  The likelihood of surviving a fall is therefore 99.9%. Does that mean 12,000 deaths are acceptable? Most people would say no.
  • Each year, there are an estimated 42,000 deaths due to motor vehicle crashes and an estimated 6 million reported motor vehicle crashes. The likelihood of surviving a motor vehicle crash is 99%. Does that mean 42,000 deaths are acceptable? Most people would say no.

 MYTH: “Newer homes are safer homes; the fire and death problem is limited to older homes.”

Matt Klaus, NFPA's principal fire protection engineer, counters this popular myth

FACT:
Age of housing is a poor predictor of fire death rates. Yes, new construction codes allow for tighter construction and better draft-stopped homes, which help slow the spread of fire. However, these safeguards have not completely mitigated the home fire problem. The majority of home fires are caused by candles, smoking materials, cooking, arcing, and other occupant-based activities. These types of fires happen in old and new construction alike.

Moreover, new methods of construction negatively impact occupant and firefighter life safety under fire conditions. The National Research Council of Canada (NRC) tested the performance of unprotected floor assemblies exposed to fire. The findings of the study, "The Performance of Unprotected Floor Assemblies in Basement Fire Scenarios," assert that these structures are prone to catastrophic collapse as early as six minutes from the onset of fire.

In 2008, Underwriters Laboratories (UL) conducted a study to identify the danger to firefighters created by the use of lightweight wood trusses and engineered lumber in residential roof and floor designs. The findings of the report, "Structural Stability of Engineered Lumber in Fire Conditions," point to the failure of lightweight engineered wood systems when exposed to fire. Firefighters expecting thirty minutes of structural integrity with dimensional wood structures face higher peril in lightweight structures.

The same UL study found that the synthetic construction of today’s home furnishings add to the increased risk by providing a greater fuel load. Larger homes, open spaces, increased fuel loads, void spaces, and changing building materials contribute to:

  • faster fire propagation
  • shorter time to flashover
  • rapid changes in fire dynamics
  • shorter escape time
  • shorter time to collapse

FREE PRESENTATION: "The Threats of Lightweight Construction and Modern Furnishings." NFPA has created a PowerPoint presentation aimed at educating community's decision makers and the public about unprotected, lightweight construction materials and modern home furnishings under fire. 


MYTH: “Home fire sprinklers are expensive and will make housing unaffordable, especially for first-time buyers moving to our area.”

Matt Klaus, NFPA's principal fire protection engineer, counters this popular myth

FACT: The fact is that home fire sprinklers are affordable. In 2013, the Fire Protection Research Foundation issued its updated Home Fire Sprinkler Cost Assessment report, which revealed that the cost of installing home fire sprinklers averages $1.35 per sprinklered square foot for new construction. That's down from $1.61 per sprinklered square foot that was in the Foundation's 2008 report. To put the cost of sprinklers into perspective, many people pay similar amounts for carpet upgrades, a paving stone driveway, or a whirlpool bath. Installing home fire sprinklers can help residents significantly reduce property loss in the event of fire, cut homeowner insurance premiums, and help support local fire service efforts.


MYTH: "We don't need sprinkler requirements; they can be installed in homes voluntarily."

FACT:  Fire sprinklers are a U.S. model building code requirement for all new, one- and two-family homes. If a new home is lacking this safety feature, it is not adhering to national model building codes, and should therefore be considered substandard. Adopting this requirement to sprinkler new homes provides a greater overall level of safety in communities. By requiring this technology, you are ensuring that a large number of residents can enjoy the same level of safety found in many offices, schools, apartments, and public buildings.

Beyond the life-saving benefits of home sprinklers, there are other incentives; cities can reduce the strain on fire service personnel, limit damage to property, and help conserve municipal water resources by reducing the amount of water needed to fight fires.


 MYTH: “Home fire sprinklers often leak or activate accidentally.”

FACT: Leaks from fire sprinklers are very rare. Scottsdale, Arizona, for instance, has had an ordinance for home fire sprinklers since 1986. According to NFPA's "U.S. Experience with Sprinklers" report, a survey conducted there found that the majority of residents living in sprinklered homes had never experienced a leak or maintenance problem.

The report also noted that sprinklers operated in 94 percent of home fires in which sprinklers were present and fires were considered large enough to activate them. They were effective at controlling the fire in 96 percent of fires in which they operated. In three of every five home fires in which sprinklers failed to operate, the system had been shut off.


 MYTH: "If you want your home fire sprinklers to be reliable, they will need frequent, expensive maintenance.”

FACT: The standard design for home fire sprinklers is much simpler than the design for more traditional sprinklers used in commercial buildings. If you install home fire sprinklers, the only “inspection and maintenance” you need to do are simple tasks outlined by the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition, including simple flow tests and visual inspections. 


 MYTH: “When a fire occurs, every sprinkler will activate and everything in the house will be ruined.

FACT: In the event of a fire, typically, only the sprinkler closest to the fire will activate, spraying water directly on the fire, leaving the rest of the house dry and secure. Roughly 85 percent of the time, only one sprinkler activates during a fire. 


 MYTH: “The water damage caused by fire sprinklers will be more extensive than fire damage.”

Matt Klaus, NFPA's principal fire protection engineer, counters this popular myth

FACT: Home fire sprinklers can significantly reduce property loss and damage due to a fire. The sprinkler will quickly control the heat and smoke from the fire, limiting damage to other areas of the house and giving residents valuable time to get out safely. Any resulting impact from the sprinkler will be much less severe than the damage caused by water from fire-fighting hose lines. Fire departments use up to eight-and-a-half times more water to extinguish a home fire as fire sprinklers would use to extinguish the same fire.


 MYTH: “Home fire sprinklers are not practical in colder climates, as the pipes will freeze and cause water damage.”

Matt Klaus, NFPA's principal fire protection engineer, counters this popular myth

FACT: With proper installation, home fire sprinklers will not freeze in cold settings. NFPA 13D, Installation of Sprinkler Systems in One- and Two-Family Dwellings and Manufactured Homes, sets forth guidelines on proper insulation to avoid pipes freezing.  


 MYTH: “Home fire sprinklers are unattractive and will ruin the aesthetics of our residents’ homes.”

FACT: New home fire sprinkler models are very unobtrusive, can be mounted flush with walls or ceilings, and can be concealed behind decorative covers.


 MYTH: “Any time a smoke alarm goes off it will activate the home fire sprinklers.”

FACT: Each individual sprinkler is designed and calibrated to activate only during the heat from a fire. They do not operate in response to smoke, burned toast, cooking vapors, steam, or an activating smoke alarm.