Sprinkler systems required in new Calif. homes

The provision, which became effective Jan. 1, is hoped to make a dent in fire fatalities

By Leslie Berkman
The Press Enterprise

RIVERSIDE, Calif. — Starting this year, homes built in Inland Southern California and throughout the state will be sold with a virtual firefighter in every room, on duty 24 hours a day to save lives.

That is the way fire marshals describe California building code amendments that now require every single-family home and duplex built anywhere in the state to be equipped with a fire sprinkler system.

The provision, which became effective Jan. 1, is hoped to make a dent in fire fatalities, which nationally claim the lives of eight people a day.

A March 2010 report from the National Fire Protection Association found in a five-year period the death rate per 1,000 reported home fires was 83 percent lower when sprinkler systems were present than when they weren't.

The home building industry, which resisted sprinklers in single family houses for more than two decades, says in California it will add about $4,000 to the cost of an average house, or about $2 per square foot.

Industry representatives complain the added cost is a blow to home builders struggling in a down economy to attract price sensitive buyers and compete with foreclosures.

"Adding that much cost to a house will make a difference," said Mark Knorringa, chief executive officer of the Riverside County chapter of the California Building Industry Association. "I don't know if they (builders) will be able to pass it on to the consumer."

Knorringa said he is concerned that by making it more difficult for home builders to eek out a profit, the sprinkler requirement, combined with the costs of other recent code upgrades, could further slow construction, which currently is at a snail's pace.

Bob Raymer, the California Building Industry Association's technical director, argues that more lives would be saved at less cost by putting hard-wired smoke detectors into homes built prior to 1992 when smoke detector requirements were strengthened in the state building code.

"It is extremely rare to see a fire fatality occur in a home built after 1992," Raymer said.

Fire prevention officials say they favor smoke detectors and sprinkler systems.

Before Jan. 1 California had no statewide building code requirement for sprinklers in single family homes; but fire departments could require sprinklers to be installed in new homes built in areas that were difficult for firefighters to reach or not well served by fire hydrants or bordering wild lands.

Also 146 cities and counties in California since 1970 had adopted their own building code criteria for requiring sprinklers in homes that were based on various factors, often house size.

Fire departments in cities like Riverside, Fontana, Norco, San Bernardino and Redlands that previously enforced their own home sprinkler requirements report that the sprinklers have been extremely effective.

"I have never seen any fatalities or serious injuries in a residence that had a residential fire sprinkler," said Riverside Fire Marshall Mike Esparza. Riverside has enforced a sprinkler ordinance similar to the new statewide requirement since 1993.

Esparza said he has also "responded to fires where I have seen the ones we have flown to the burn ward and didn't make it because there were no fire sprinklers."

Insurance companies that belong to Insurance Information Network of California offer homeowner insurance discounts of about 10 percent for homes that are fully protected by automatic fire sprinklers, said network spokesman Pete Moraga. He said the network's members represent about 60 percent of the homeowner insurance policies written in California.

Hemet Fire Department chief Matt Shobert said the new state code requiring fire sprinklers on all new homes "provides for a consistent and safe approach in dealing with this issue." California was one of the first states to incorporate in its codes the national standard adopted by the International Code Council.

"Our job is not just to fight fires but to prevent them as well, and this provides for a bunch of virtual firefighters in every new structure," Shobert said.

Fire departments like Hemet that have sustained staff reductions as a result of government budget cuts could use the help of sprinklers, said Shobert.

"In these times of decreased emergency responders we need to do something to balance the scales," he said.

Residential fire sprinklers are activated by intense heat. Their primary function is to keep a fire at bay long enough for residents to escape with their lives.

But Riverside Fire Marshal Esparza said the sprinklers also have proven effective in protecting property and making fires more manageable for fire fighters.

"If they don't extinguish the fire itself, they contain it well enough for us to come in and put it out," he said.

Public concern about widespread water damage from the sprinklers is unwarranted, fire officials say, because when a fire ignites, such as from an electric short, it does not kick on all the sprinkler heads in a house at once.

Studies show 95 percent of the time only one or two sprinkler heads in a house are activated and they contain the fire in the room where it starts, said Kevin Reinertson, supervising deputy for the California Fire Marshal.

He said accidental sprinkler activations or sprinkler plumbing breaks that cause flooding are rare. Also he said sprinkler heads designed for homes are more attractive than the ones in office buildings and warehouses. They are two to three inches in diameter, flat, and come in a multitude of colors to blend with the ceiling.

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