Residential Sprinklers in Virginia

Please take the time to read over this information in its entirety.

Urgent information from JD Mitchell (VFPA – visit the site for more info)

Draft letters found here

Several days ago, the Code Committee for the Board of Housing decided to eliminate the requirements for residential sprinklers in the upcoming code. Several members of the committee raised some questions and actually stated that they needed more information. None the less, the committee decided to eliminate the residential sprinkler requirements without having the questions answered or additional information provided.

The following information is from Robby Dawson;

The next deadline is July 8 for public comments to the proposed regulations. This is the document that will have the HBAV change to delete the sprinkler requirement. Anyone (everyone) should send comments opposing this and asking the board to remove that code change to Vernon Hodge via e-mail at in order to get the opposition on the table. There may be something the Secretary can do if the board approves the change anyway, but it is the volume and type of public comments submitted which will give them the clue something is wrong.

The next date is July 27. This will be at the Virginia Housing Center in Henrico. That will be the “public hearing” of the full board to hear comments from anyone who wishes to speak on any of the proposed code changes. While we should coordinate our comments, the more uniforms in the crowd the better, so even if you don’t plan on speaking, a show of support would be in order.

On the non-DHCD date list is the July 22 meeting of the Virginia Residential Sprinkler Coalition. This will take place in Fredericksburg at 10 am. We plan on continuing development of the trade off package to have as our middle ground and show we are still willing to meet in the middle on the issue.

The following can also be found here.

The Home Builders Association of Virginia has made a considerable effort to stop the Virginia Board of Housing & Community Development from adopting the 2009 International Residential Code as approved by the membership of the International Code Council. We feel that this is regrettable and feel obligated to respond to their objections point for point.

This is the Virginia Fire Prevention Association’s response to The Home Builders Association of Virginia’s 10 Reasons Why Mandating Fire Sprinklers Makes No Sense For Virginia, available at their website .

HBAV Assertion #1

Statistics show today’s better built homes are saving lives. From 1979-2003 the death rate per million persons from house fires dropped 58 percent, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. That trend will continue as more new housing stock is built, stronger building codes are enacted and especially as smoke alarm maintenance by homeowners improves.

VFPA Reply

The reduction of fire fatalities has little to do with “better built homes.” To the contrary, modern residential construction has shifted from tradition dimension lumber framing to lightweight engineered structural components. The performance of these structures in fire conditions demonstrates a significant reduction in fire safety.

a.. A recent Underwriters Laboratory study funded by the Department of Homeland Security, Report on Structural Stability of Engineered Lumber in Fire Conditions documented the striking differences between traditional and engineered systems. For example, a traditionally constructed floor system, without a drywall ceiling to protect its underside, withstood the test fire for 18 minutes. By comparison, a similar system using modern engineered wooden I-beams survived for about six minutes.
b.. Another study conducted by the National Research Council of Canada, concluded: “With the relatively severe fire scenarios used in the experiments, the times to reach structural failure for the wood I-joist, steel C-joist, metal plate, and metal web wood truss assemblies were 35 to 60 percent shorter than that for the [traditional] solid wood joist assembly.”
The performance of lightweight components underscore the need for residential sprinklers in modern residential construction.

HBAV Assertion #2

Sprinklers are rarely needed for house fires. Sprinkler proponents claim that a residential system is reliable in 96-99 percent of all reported structure fires where the fire was large enough to activate the system. But reports from the National Fire Prevention Association (NFPA) show that the number of fires that occur in one- and two-family dwellings equipped with sprinklers are so few that they are not shown in studies done by the organization.

VFPA Reply

The effectiveness of residential sprinklers cannot be better demonstrated than by HBAV’s assertion. Residential sprinklers are so successful, that fire incidents often go unreported.

HBAV Assertion #3

Sprinklers cause unintended damage. Statistics from the Virginia Fire Incident Reporting System show that 76.8 percent of all fires in Virginia from 2000 through 2008 either did not spread or were confined to an object or a room and contained. But when sprinklers detect smoke they set off every sprinkler in the house, not just in the room where the fire is occurring. In many homes that suffer a fire where working sprinklers exist there is more water damage to the home than fire damage.

VFPA Reply

HBAV’s assertion is blatantly false and demonstrates a lack of understanding of residential sprinkler systems. They state “When sprinklers detect smoke, they set off every sprinkler in the house.”

1.. Sprinkler heads are activate by heat, NOT smoke.
2.. Only one head is activated.
3.. They are designed to operate quickly enough that only one head is activated.

HBAV Assertion #4

Home insurance rates do not decrease with their use. Sprinkler proponents claim the cost of home insurance decreases when you install fire sprinklers. It’s true that some states offer insurance credits for having fire sprinklers in the home. Using a conservative sprinkler cost estimate of $1.50 per square foot in a 2,300-square-foot home with an annual property insurance rate of $1,000, it would take approximately 35 years for a 10 percent credit to pay for the system. Insurance agents in the Richmond area say credits rarely are given above 3.5 percent. Throw in maintenance costs and it would take even longer for the credit to pay its due for the system. However, that does not offset the increased costs charged for potential water damage and flooding. In most cases sprinklers go off in areas of the home where fire is not occurring, causing more claims for water damage than fire damage. Virginia insurance agents say this drives the cost of insurance higher for people who have sprinkler systems.

VFPA Reply

This is the first instance in which we have heard the validity of a construction code safety requirement questioned based on the availability of an insurance discount. When code requirements for arc fault and ground fault protection were adopted, was the question of an insurance discount raised?

Again the assertion that sprinkler heads “go off” in areas of the home that are not involved in fire either indicates a lack of technical knowledge, or a deliberate attempt at

obfuscation. Regardless of HBAV’s assertion, a 2008 study by Newport Partners for the National Fire Protection Research Foundation using data from ten states identified insurance savings from 0-10%, with the average discount of 7%.

HBAV Assertion #5

Smoke alarms potentially save more lives than sprinklers. A 2006 study by the U.S. Fire Association (USFA) on the presence of working smoke alarms in residential fires from 2001-2004 showed that 88 percent of the fatal fires in single-family homes occurred where there were no working smoke alarms. USFA and NFPA data continue to show that the vast majority of home fire fatalities occur when there are no operational smoke alarms. The most recent NFPA report on smoke alarms estimates that more than 890 lives could be saved annually if every home had a working smoke alarm. From 2000-2004, 65 percent of the fire fatalities reported occurred in homes where smoke alarms were not present or were present and did not operate.

VFPA Reply

This fact has nothing to do with sprinklers, as the two are complimentary parts of a residential fire protection system. Additionally, HBAV’s analysis was taken from the National Association of Home Builder’s NAHB Recommended State & Local Amendments to the 2009 International Residential Code. Dr. John Hall whose work was cited by NAHB refuted their conclusions in Commentary on the NAHB Recommended State & Local Amendments to the 2009 International Residential Code (IRC) Hall, Jr. J. (May 6, 2009). Dr Hall’s comments are attached to this document.

We hope that HBAV’s recognition that providing residential smoke alarms to the needy who cannot afford them would save lives, will cause HBAV to adopt such a program as part of a  public outreach campaign. The money spent on HBAV’s campaign to block the adoption of the 2009 IRC as approved by the ICC membership would have been a great start for the program.

HBAV Assertion #6

Sprinklers will harm efforts at providing affordable housing statewide. According to an August 2006 survey of home builders done by the National Association of Home Builders’ Research Center, the average sprinkler system costs $2.66 per square foot to install in a new home. For the average home size considered to be affordable housing in Virginia – 1,800 to 2,200 square feet – the maximum cost would be approximately $5,850. In the Richmond area, about 710 families lose the ability to qualify for a new home mortgage with each $1,000 increase in the price of a new home. Mandating fire sprinklers would keep more than 4,100 families from being able to buy affordable housing in the Richmond area. A hard-wired, interconnected smoke alarm system installed through the whole house costs about $50 per alarm. You may have heard of the “Scottsdale study,” which sprinkler proponents are using to claim sprinklers do not harm affordable housing. They claim sprinklers can be installed for as little as $1 per square foot. In Scottsdale, AZ, where the Scottsdale study was done, these units can be installed for $1 per square foot. But Scottsdale has some of the least expensive building costs in America. Therefore, the Scottsdale study is not reflective of the average cost for installation nationwide.

VFPA Reply

The United States Fire Administration estimates the true cost of sprinkler installation during construction at $1- $1.50 per square foot, significantly lower than HBAV’s assertion and on average require only 8 additional man hours of labor. USFA’s website also refutes most of HBAV’s assertions.

HBAV Assertion #7

Sprinklers are much more difficult and time consuming to maintain than smoke alarms. Homeowners have a difficult time remembering to change the batteries in their smoke alarms once every six months. A sprinkler system requires much more maintenance than simply replacing batteries. Based on the problems with maintaining smoke detectors, it is easy to deduce that homeowners will not maintain sprinkler systems at the level required for them to be at maximum efficiency. More lives can be saved by educating the public to the importance of maintaining hard-wired, interconnected smoke alarms in proper operating condition than through mandating fire sprinklers.

VFPA Reply

Residential fire sprinkler systems are essentially maintenance free. Multipurpose

systems have no maintenance requirements at all, and stand-alone systems only require

an occasional test of the water flow alarm, if provided.

HBAV Assertion #8

Sprinklers can be damaged by extreme cold, causing water damage. Should a home lose power for several days, as occurred in some parts of the Richmond area during the early March snowstorm, the basins that hold water for sprinkler use can freeze and burst. Homeowners most likely would have to take measures to keep heat in the water basins, further increasing the cost that many rural Virginians can’t afford.

VFPA Reply

Fire sprinkler systems pose no greater risk of freezing than domestic plumbing if the system is properly designed and installed. Residential sprinklers systems are no different than residential plumbing. If quality products are used and the system is properly installed, it won’t leak. If substandard products are used or workmanship is faulty, leaks can occur. Sprinklers, piping and fittings are held to a far higher level of quality than are domestic water components and sprinklers must be rigorously tested. Listing tests for sprinklers include 700-PSI hydrostatic strength, 500-PSI leakage resistance, 100,000 cycles water hammer resistance, 35-125°F temperature cycling and freeze performance to -20°F for 24 hours. Sprinkler piping and components are rated for a pressure of 175 PSI, while plumbing water supply systems are rated for only 80 PSI.

HBAV Assertion #9

Sprinklers in homes on well water have additional problems. Owners will have to

calculate how the system will work if power goes out, or if the well’s water level is low enough to cause pressure problems. Extra water tanks, pumps and generators could be purchased to help with pressure, but that adds more cost to the system – cost many owners in rural Virginia could not afford.

VFPA Response

Residential sprinklers supplied via wells indeed have additional costs, just as the basic water supply for those homes does. Systems are designed for a maximum of 2 heads flowing. Some homeowners have installed larger pressure thanks to supply their sprinkler systems. This provides the added advantage of requiring their well pump to run less, prolonging the life of the pump, and helping to offset the cost of the larger tank. Back-up generators or emergency power are not required. Additionally, tanks and pumps are not required to be listed for sprinkler service, saving the homeowner additional expense.

HBAV Assertion #10

Annual sprinkler installation costs will greatly exceed property losses nationwide and in any jurisdiction where they are mandated. For example, had this mandate been in place in 2005 the installation cost to builders would have been almost $10.2 billion based on an average square-foot home with a cost of $2.66 per square foot. The NFPA reported that the total home property loss – new and existing homes – due to fire in 2005 was less than $5.8 billion. The installation cost would have been nearly double the loss. As new homes continue to be better built, the difference between installation cost and property loss will continue to increase, and statistics show most people forced to have these installed will never use them in their home.

VFPA Reply

Residential sprinklers, like smoke alarms are primarily installed to give occupants timely notification and the opportunity to escape. Comparing the cost of these systems to the value of structural fire loss is akin to comparing the cost to install airbags in vehicles with the vehicular damage from auto accidents. The two don’t compare. Responding to HBAV’s assertion that “People who are forced to install these systems will never use them,” we can only say we certainly hope not.

The Virginia Fire Prevention Association is dedicated to the prevention of fires and the protection of lives and property though the Three E’s of Fire Prevention—EDUCATION, ENGINEERING and ENFORCEMENT. Our organization is composed of fire and building code officials, fire inspectors, fire investigators and individuals and companies dedicated to the reduction of fire waste within the Commonwealth of Virginia.

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