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RESIDENTIAL FIRE SPRINKLER SYSTEMS -

COST FACTORS: What needs to be done about them?


by
Richard M. Patton, P.E.
Fire Protection Engineer

Fire sprinkler systems are here to stay. Twenty these codes have often also reduced the quality of the
years ago the opponents of the fire sprinkler system system.
were fighting to keep them out of hospitals, nursing Today, there is a residential fire sprinkler
homes, high rise buildings, and hotels. They lost. committee in operation in the Office of the State Fire
Today, the battle is being waged on the residential Marshal (California), and if I can influence that
front. Sooner or later sprinklers will win there too, for situation, residential sprinklers that are better as well
two basic reasons. as less costly will result.
1. When all costs are factored in, sprinklers WATER CHARGES
provide more safety at lower costs than any It is improper for a water company or a city to
other fire protection system or service.. increase a water connection charge to a home
2. The public will not forever tolerate a 6,000 fire because it is sprinklered. This practice should stop.
death rate per year, involving many children, Incidently, proper sprinkler design codes would make
when there is a close to 100% cure available. an "upgrading" of a connection to a home to feed
Contrary to popular opinion, I do not consider the sprinklers unnecessary.
building industry to be the enemy of the fire sprinkler INSURANCE COSTS
system. I have long held that the real but hidden Today, the fire insurance industry is working
enemy of the fire sprinkler system is the fire code overtime to not recognize the full value of a fire
system in America. The fire codes establish a sprinkler system and to not give all the rate reduction
mandated (buy it, or we shut down your business) that is justified. Of course, fire is the business of the
marketplace which I believe exceeds $100 billion a • fire insurance industry. But, when loss ratios drop, as
year. (No one has ever added up all the hidden costs they will in sprinklered homes, eventually the insurer
of fire safety--another story.) The fire sprinkler system will be forced competitively to give proper reductions.
has the potential to be so cost effective as to threaten Probably a 75% reduction in the fire portion of the
much of this market. homeowner's policy is justified in a sprinklered home,
A few years back I personally designed an at least.
innovative fire sprinkler system for a 12 level hospital HOME DENSITY
in Kansas City, which bid for 38 cents per square Fire walls between adjoining dwellings, and clear
foot. Then, because the hospital was "fully space between dwellings, are just two of the "hidden"
sprinklered" we reduced the "four hour" construction costs of the fire and building codes. Sprinklers can
to three hours, and did other things that reduced the justify reductions in fire wall construction, and
total cost of the hospital by an excess of $5 million separation distance. Increased land density can be a
(over 10% reduction in the cost of constructing the very significant cost factor. In fact, although this is
building). "heresy" to the "fireproof building" gang, I will say that
I believe that builders sometimes (not always) fight a sprinklered home sheathed entirely with wood
the sprinkler system because the codes have paneling (no gyp board) is probably 10 times safer
overpriced the sprinkler system, and because so than a gyp board sheathed home without sprinklers.
much other "fire safety" is built in that there is It's not the building fire that kills, it's the contents--the
skepticism relative to any and all "safety" issues. furnishings--fire. The gyp board simply creates a wgooq
In order to ease the transition to sprinklered furnace" within which the contents burn like wood in
dwellings I recommend all of the following changes in the stove. The sprinkler system terminates the fire.
our thinking. TAXES
SPRINKLER DESIGN There is a desperate need to educate the legislature
There is no doubt that the National Fire Protection relative to fire safety and the needless killing of
Association has produced sprinkler codes that have thousands of children and the elderly each year in
overpriced sprinklers, sometimes (believe it or not) by home fires. I recommend that a coalition of fire chiefs
as much as a 4 to 1 ratio of mandated price to "assist" all legislatures to get together during 1987 and
achievable price. What few are aware of today is that enact a "reversal tax" on sprinkler systems in the

2 JUNE, 1987
2 FIRE PROTECTION CONTRACTOR
homes. Here's how it would work. Say the home is framework they built in gypsum and concrete, fire
worth $100,000; the sprinkler system is added for doors and wired glass, fire dampers and fire retardant
$2,000, with an apparent net tax value of $102,000. It sheathing, fire alarm systems and smoke detectors,
is morally wrong, however, to obstruct a life safety and enclosed stairways and fire rated corridors, and
addition by taxing it. The sprinkler protected home much, much more. Let's call this fire safety, Plan A. It
needs less fire department, less water supply, less was all aimed at three things.
hospital care. Instead of adding the sprinkler cost to 1. Detect the fire and sound the alarm (but not put
the home, it should be subtracted from the tax base. the fire out automatically).
In the above example, the tax base for the home 2. Rush like hell to the stairways and exits.
should be $98,000; not $102,000. I believe it is far 3. Contain the fire within one "fire area" until
better to put a dollar into controlling fire in the home everybody was outside the building, and the fire
(while small) rather than paying the high cost to department arrived.
restructure a child's face. Too often, the fire was quicker than the runners.
FIRE DEPARTMENT/WATER SUPPLIES/ There are new concepts of fire safety today, many
ACCESS of which I promoted against the wishes of the "code
Fully sprinklered developments will need less authorities" and they are based on controlling the fire
protection from paid fire departments, and may be automatically, and keeping the occupant safe from the
safely served by water supplies that will deliver fire fire, even while in bed.
flows in the 500 to 1,000 gpm range, rather than the Let's call this Plan B.
1,000 to 2,000 gpm range. Access regulations for fire I say that when Plan B is engaged, much of Plan A
trucks can be modified in fully sprinklered becomes redundant.
developments, often with major savings. And fire Along with the movement toward Plan B, I believe
departments can buy smaller, more maneuverable the builders and the developers should become
apparatus. Sprinkler protection can make the actively involved in a program to study all of the
development of some tracts of land, remote from a myriad items built into the fire and building codes
fire department, feasible. (under Plan A) and begin to back out some of the
BUILDING CODE STUDY GROUP redundancies and the excessive costs. The builder is
For 100 years and more, those organizations becoming strangled by the fire regulations. He should
(private-not government) that self established become more involved.
themselves as America's fire safety authorities (the AN EXAMPLE
model building codes, the National Fire Protection Terry Carrol, Fire Chief of the Northside Fire
Association and Underwriters Laboratory) operated Protection District (20 miles N.E. of Sacramento) was
under a "master plan" of fire safety. That "master concerned over a large barn being built in an area
plan" was based on fireproofing the interior of the where a barn fire could trigger a brush fire. Fire
building, compartmenting it into small sections or fire sprinkler system estimates, however, were in the
areas, such as one floor of a high rise or one hotel $60,000 range, mainly because of water supply (fire
room (one house also is one fire area). Into this protection) costs. We installed an innovative sprinkler
system for $30,000. One of the cost cutting items was They opted for number 2 and today the sprinkler
to walk away from the $12,000 (we had quotes) U.L. system (and other "life safety systems") imposed on
approved fire pump and install, instead, an excellent the builder of the new high rise is outrageous.
commercial centrifugal pump and drive costing $850. The lesson is, get involved when regulations are
Based on my 30 years experience as a fire being created, and make them sensible. Do not walk
protection engineer, I believe similar outrageous away and let the "code system" set the parameters.
prices for products that are certified as "fire service Blind opposition, without careful planning, often
approved" are common. This situation will not change serves the needs of those who are intent on not only
so long as the builder pays the prices, passes them on making new regulations, but on maximizing the price
to the customer, and does not get involved in a at the same time.
corrective process. The sprinkler can be a high cost addition to an
PAST HISTORY already too high base of fire regulations, or it can be a
About 15 years ago I was meeting, as a consultant, key Jo open the door to the fire regulations fortress
with the Building Owners and Manager's Association. so that the light of reason and common sense may
Most believed that sprinkler systems were not needed enter the dungeons.
in high rise buildings and should be opposed (a view
also shared by the fire codes). I argued that the ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
system was inevitable in a new high rise and that the
industry had two choices.
1. Become involved and be certain that when Richard M. Patton is a Registered Professional
sprinkler regulations became mandatory an engineer and a licensed fire protection contractor in
economial type of system would be allowed. the state of California.
2. Ignore the situation, or blindly oppose it, and by You may communicate with him by writing: Patton
so doing allow the code makers a free hand to Fire Protection Systems, Inc., 5316 Roseville Road,
impose a system that was structured to be as Suite P, North Highlands, CA 95660, or by calling
expensive as they could make it. (916) 338-0943.