I saw this today while doing my internet rounds of my newspapers.


Towns hot for home sprinklers, fire safety

By ANDREA BUSHEE, Telegraph Staff

Published: Monday, Dec. 5, 2005

Angela Mclaughlin never thought about having a fire sprinkler system in her Mont Vernon house before she moved to town.

And while the system wasn’t a key feature of her new home, she’s glad it’s there.

Sprinkler systems often add about 1 percent to 2 percent to the cost of a new house, but they dramatically reduce the risk of death and property damage in a fire, safety officials say.

Mclaughlin and others who have moved into new homes in the area are finding the systems and their safety benefits are not optional. Many towns, including Mont Vernon, Hudson, Hollis and Brookline have begun requiring builders to either add sprinklers to homes in new developments or build water tanks nearby.

Sprinklers are a good thing to have for safety reasons, Mclaughlin said, but she also wasn’t expecting to have them in her home or pay the $8,000 it cost the builder to install them when she decided to have the house built.

“I don’t have a problem having it at all,” Mclaughlin said.

Though homeowners and builders have mixed emotions about the sprinklers, local fire officials say the systems are worth it.

Having fire sprinklers in every home in town might make the job of fire fighting boring, but firefighters like Rick Crocker would still like to see it happen.

“I think everybody in fire service would or should promote fire sprinklers,” he said. “You have less excitement but less death and destruction.”

Benefits and misconceptions

Crocker is a call firefighter in Mont Vernon, which requires new single-family developments to either have sprinklers built into every home or a large water tank installed nearby.

Crocker is a former Amherst fire chief and owns a fire protection business and consulting service in Amherst. He’s convinced fire sprinklers save lives. Yet they are not something most people think about when buying a home.

Installing both smoke alarms and fire sprinklers will reduce the risk of death in homes due to fires by 82 percent, while the systems add about 1 percent to 1.5 percent to the total construction cost of a new home, according to the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition’s Web site, www.homefiresprinkler.org.

There actually tends to be less water damage after a fire occurs in a building with sprinklers than one without, Crocker said, and the sprinklers usually contain the flames so firefighters don’t need to come in with hoses.

The odds of accidental sprinkler discharge due to a defect are 1 in 16 million, according to the sprinkler coalition.

Despite the benefits, many people have false impressions about sprinklers. Movies and TV often show entire buildings being showered with water because a fire occurs in one area of a business or home.

Only the sprinkler heads triggered by heat are set off in a fire, yet many people believe if one sprinkler head goes off, they all go off.

“It’s frustrating for us in the business,” Crocker said. “It’s a very common misconception.”

Sprinkler heads are attached to water pipes, and act as plugs, holding the water inside the pipes. They have heat sensitive triggers, such as a liquid-filled glass tube, that release the water in the pipes during a fire.

The systems are usually hooked up to a tank in the basement that holds about 300 gallons of water, which is enough to run two sprinkler heads for about 10 minutes, the average time it takes for a fire to be called in and for fire officials respond to it.

Safety and cost

Joseph Triolo, Hudson fire inspector, says many developers in the town are opting to put fire sprinklers into the homes rather than install cisterns when they build. Hudson requires the tanks or systems be put into new neighborhoods outside the town’s public water district.

The cisterns must hold 10,000 gallons of water, he said. They usually cost about $30,000 to $40,000 to build and they must be put in before the developers begin construction with any type of combustible materials, such as wood.

Triolo said he would rather see sprinklers in homes than cisterns for safety reasons. A fire has the potential to double in size every 30 seconds, but in sprinkled homes, it usually doesn’t have a chance to spread, he said. About 90 percent of the time, one sprinkler will extinguish a fire inside a home before fire fighters even arrive.

The systems also give people more time to get out of their home if a fire occurs, fire officials say, and some people, such as children younger than 5 and adults 65 years and older, need that extra time. People in those age groups are most commonly killed in fires.

The average amount of damage in a home that is not sprinkled is about $18,000, Triolo said, while a home with sprinklers usually has about $1,700 worth of damage after a fire.

State Fire Marshal William Degnan is also a fan of sprinklers.

“Having a sprinkler in your home is like having a fire fighter on duty in your home 24 hours a day,” he said.

Towns and cities across the state are requiring fire sprinklers in single- and two-family homes, he said, including Dover, Manchester, Peterborough and Sandown. Some towns require all new homes to have them, others require them in 55-plus developments, and some require them in new homes with more than a certain number of square feet.

Right now the state does not require sprinklers, Degnan said, but the state will be reviewing its fire protection code and will decide whether or not to require sprinkler systems by the spring of 2007.

Degnan said he’d like to see sprinklers in every house, since 80 percent of people who die in fires die in their homes. The price of installing a sprinkler is also becoming more reasonable, he said.

The average price of installing a sprinkler system is often compared to the price of replacing carpet in a home.

However, you can install new carpeting in an old home. In the case of sprinklers systems, they are almost exclusively installed in new homes because of the amount of work required to add them to existing structure.

Rick Wood, Nashua fire inspector, recently conducted a study on residential fire sprinklers. He found the average cost to install a sprinkler system in a new home in the area is about $2 per square foot.

In Nashua, nearly two-thirds of structure fires occur in residential properties and all three fire-related deaths in the past five years occurred during fires in single-family homes, according to the report, which was written in October 2004.

Nashua does not require fire sprinklers in new single- or two-family homes, Wood said.

A growing trend

Christian Dubay, a senior fire protection engineer at the National Fire Protection Agency, said cities and towns across the country are adopting ordinances that require sprinklers in new homes. Some also require the systems when homeowners remodel or redesign their homes, he added.

There is a 90 percent to 95 percent reduction in total damage costs from a fire in a home with sprinklers, he said. People are also realizing they greatly reduce the chance of dying in a fire.

“They should be part of choosing a house,” he said. “More and more people realize there is a big benefit there.”

Sprinklers can be hidden in the home and can also be covered with custom painted plates that match the walls and ceilings.

Many insurance agencies, such as State Farm Insurance, give a discount to homeowners with sprinkled homes. Manchester State Farm agent Ed Ibanez said homeowners receive up to a 5 percent discount off their total premium for partially sprinkled homes and up to a 10 percent discount off their premium for a fully sprinkled home.

John Brighton, president of Life Safety Fire Protection in Dublin, says he finds many people who want sprinklers in their homes are people who have experienced a fire in their house before.

Home installations are the fastest growing sector in the industry, Brighton said, but there are many people resistant to it as well. Many people don’t want to be forced into it, he said. They also need to be maintained yearly, which costs about $250 annually.

Bob Pratt, owner of Pratt Family Homes in Milford, has built several homes in towns that require sprinklers and he’d rather not have to install them. Many homeowners are not happy about having to pay for them, he said.

“It gets passed on to the homeowner,” he said. “That’s the bad part.”

But sprinklers are necessary, especially in towns without a public water supply, according to Hollis Fire Chief Richard Towne.

For the past three years, Hollis has had an ordinance that requires all new homes in the town to have the systems installed. The department was a volunteer department when the ordinance was created, he said. Now the department has full- and part-time fire fighters but it is still a small department.

“We don’t have enough calls to build a full–time department,” he said.

The town simply decided to use technology instead of adding more staff, he added.

Jeff Muller, a real estate agent at ERA The Masiello Group in Hollis, said he thinks the town’s ordinance is a good thing.

In his experience, homeowners are usually willing to pay a little more in order to protect their homes from a fire.

“It’s not a bad thing at all from a real estate point of view,” he said.

Andrea Bushee can be reached at 594-6402 or busheea@nashuatelegraph.com.