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Home builders, sellers battle Pennsylvania's fire sprinkler requirement

Brian C. Rittmeyer
| Sunday, March 7, 2010

Beginning next year, all new one- and two-family houses built in Pennsylvania will be required to have an automatic fire sprinkler system.

Safety officials and other supporters say the systems -- more commonly seen in business and commercial buildings -- will save lives and reduce property damage.

But those who build and sell homes say the requirement -- along with other building code changes -- will add thousands of dollars to the price of a new home and hinder the housing market recovery.

The change has prompted a lawsuit, and efforts by some lawmakers to block the requirement.

Under the 2009 Uniform Construction Code, which the state follows -- sprinklers are required in new homes starting Jan. 1, 2011.

According to the U.S. Fire Administration, there were 414,000 residential fires in 2007, the most recent year available. They resulted in 2,895 deaths, 14,000 injuries and $7.5 billion in property damage.

Fire administration studies say residential sprinkler systems could save thousands of lives, greatly reduce injuries and eliminate hundreds of millions of dollars in property losses.

Sprinkler systems cost $1 to $1.50 per square foot in new construction -- about the price of a carpet upgrade. Insurance discounts for those with sprinklers range from 5 percent to 15 percent, according to the fire administration.

Home systems are much simpler than their commercial counterparts, said Ed Howley, of Building Inspection Underwriters in Jeannette. They use plastic pipe and run off a home's water system.

"It's not intended to put out the fire completely," Howley said. "It's intended to suppress the fire to give people time to get out of the building and first responders to get there."


Pennsylvania is the first state in the U.S. to adopt the requirement, according to the National Fire Sprinkler Association, a trade association.

"Contrary to what home builders may say, fires do occur in new homes, usually with devastating effect, in particular now that they're building them with lightweight construction," said John Viniello, president of the sprinkler association. "Instead of having 15 minutes to evacuate in the event of a fire, it's down to two to three minutes."

The sprinklers are heat-activated and only those closest to a fire spray. They put out about 15 gallons of water per minute, 10 times less than a fire hose, he said.

Malfunctions are uncommon and designs can be aesthetically pleasing.

"They're lifesavers. It's like having 24-hour firemen in your home," Viniello said.

Brad James, deputy chief at Eureka Fire Rescue in Tarentum, said a home sprinkler system buys precious time.

"By the time first responders are on the scene, we're playing catch-up," James said. "The more that can happen during and before the initial stages of the fire, the more beneficial to safety,

"Study after study proved sprinkler systems, coupled with early-warning detection, save lives and they also save property."

Allegheny County Fire Marshal Don Brucker agrees.

"I think it's a great idea," he said. "I'd rather deal with some water damage in a house than fire damage when you have your whole house burned up."

Losses in sprinklered homes are about 45 percent to 70 percent lower than non-sprinklered homes, said Brianne Mallaghan, spokeswoman for the American Insurance Association in Boston.

The association supports sprinkler requirements for new houses, calling them "the most effective fire tool available to a homeowner."

Further, the death rate of firefighters in sprinklered homes is 80 percent lower, Mallaghan said.

The association "believes building codes and sprinkler systems have significant potential to reduce routine and catastrophic residential fire losses that can result in the loss of not only the structure and the lives of the residents, but also lives of the emergency response team," Mallaghan said.


The sprinkler requirement is one of hundreds of code changes that has prompted the Pennsylvania Builders Association to file a lawsuit to stop the implementation of the 2009 code.

The association represents 8,200 residential construction companies. It questions the constitutionality of the code and its approval.

The group wants the state to continue using the 2006 code for three years.

"The sprinklers are one element among hundreds ... in the new building code that are going to increase the cost of a new home by a minimum of $13,000," said builders association spokesman Scott Elliott.

A National Association of Homebuilders survey found 85 percent of consumers do not want a sprinkler system in their home, he said.

In Missouri, after home builders were required to offer sprinkler systems, not one person said yes, said Jim Eichenlaub, executive director of the Builders Association of Metropolitan Pittsburgh.

"We are opposed to government-mandated sprinklers," Elliott said. "We think they should be a consumer option. We don't think they should be forced on the buying public."

The Pennsylvania Association of Realtors is mobilizing against the requirement, said spokeswoman Samantha Krepps.

"We believe that mandatory sprinklers are yet another unnecessary and expensive government mandate for Pennsylvanians," she said. "Mandatory sprinklers in new one- and two-family construction will drive up new home prices in Pennsylvania and stall the recovery of the housing sector.

John Kristof, a Lower Burrell real-estate agent, said the requirement amounts to government taking away homeowners' rights.

"If you don't want a sprinkler system in your home, the government shouldn't require you to have one," he said. "It's going to drive up the cost of building.

"I own my own home. I shouldn't be required to have smoke detectors if I don't want them," Kristof said. "I understand it's a good thing, (but) If I don't want it, I shouldn't have to have it."

Kristof's son, David, is a home builder and agrees with his father.

"We're in a bad economy to begin with," he said. "Construction is a key element of the economy. It's already hurting. I don't understand why they insist on this bad stuff."

It's already the law in some areas of the state

While residential fire sprinklers may be rare in Southwestern Pennsylvania, they are common in other communities in the state.

Upper Merion in Montgomery County near Philadelphia has required fire sprinklers in new homes since 1988, possibly the first community in the state to do so, said John Waters, co-chair of the Pennsylvania Residential Fire Sprinkler Coalition and director of safety and code enforcement for Upper Merion.

Wrightstown in Bucks County has required them in all new homes since 1996. There, a fire sprinkler system was credited with saving a family's home when a garage fire broke out on Christmas Day, said Greg Jakubowski, chief of the Lingohocken Fire Company in Bucks.

Numerous townships in that area have had sprinkler requirements for at least 14 years, resulting in more than 5,000 homes with systems, Jakubowski said.

"It puts the burden of providing fire protection on the individual homeowner instead of the community," he said. "When a smoke detector goes off, it tells you you should have sprinklers."

Shortly before 1 p.m. on Christmas, an accidental fire accidental started in a three-car garage attached to a three-year-old home and began to spread. One sprinkler activated and put out the fire before the fire department arrived minutes after the call.

Instead of needing 30 to 40 firefighters for several hours, and trucking water to fight a spreading blaze, a crew of six made sure the fire was out and removed a small number of damaged items.

One of two cars in the garage had soot on it. A half-full, 2-liter soda bottle two feet from where the fire started partially melted, but never spilled the soda.

Within slightly more than a half hour, the firefighters were back at their station and the family was back in their home for the holiday, Jakubowski said.

Waters said local home builders argued against sprinklers when the township enacted the code, much as contractors statewide are doing now in opposition to the sprinkler requirement in all new homes beginning in 2011.

He and Jakubowski said the requirement has had no impact on new home construction in their areas. Wrightstown has had about 800 new homes built during the past decade, Jakubowski said.

"We've seen a tremendous amount of growth. It's a great way for communities to manage growth without impact on services," Jakubowski said. "It makes our job a whole lot easier."

Upper Merion is closing in on its 2,000th sprinklered home.

"The builders here know they have to do it. They know it's not worth whining and complaining. Now it's just part of the system," Waters said.

Pending legislation

Several bills pending in the state Senate and House are aimed at lifting the upcoming requirement that new homes have sprinkler systems.

A Senate Labor and Industry Committee hearing in October took testimony from people on both sides of the issue, said its chairman, Sen. John Gordner, R-Columbia County.

"We found out as a result of the hearing that it's a very complicated issue with no easy solution for middle ground," he said. "The firefighters and sprinkler folks and a number of larger urban municipalities are all very supportive of the effort. On the other hand, builders, Realtors and smaller municipalities have many concerns."

Sen. Don White, R-Indiana, is among lawmakers opposing the requirement, said his chief of staff, Joe Pittman.

Pittman said White is concerned about the additional cost, particularly in areas not served by public water.

"Obviously, sprinklers in homes are something consumers can put in if they so choose," Pittman said. "There is no prohibition to having it. He doesn't believe it should be a blanket requirement."

While lawmakers have until the end of the year to act, Gordner said there is hesitation to provide exceptions or options to the code.

He said modifications to the requirement are possible, but not an outright removal.

"I think politically, any outright abolishment of this requirement is going to be problematic," he said. "I don't think there's sufficient support for there to be outright removal of it."

Additional Information:

By the numbers

Single-family housing starts in Southwestern Pennsylvania*:

2009: 1,517

2008: 2,006

* Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Washington and Westmoreland counties.

Source: Tall Timber Group, construction market and research company, Ross

Additional Information:

New regulations

The building code regulations going in effect in 2011 will require more than sprinklers in newly built homes. Some of the other new requirements include:

• Increased wall insulation

• More fittings for gas connections

• Deck railing

• Increased wall bracing

• Increased anchorage to foundation

• Programmable thermostats for all forced-air heating systems

• Tamper-proof electrical receptacles in all locations

Source: Pennsylvania Builders Association

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