A sprinkler system in your house?

How would you like to have a sprinkler system installed in your house? According to the International Code Council, this is a great idea. The ICC, among other things, develops safety codes and standards for homes and schools. It came out with a code in 2009 requiring new one- and two-family homes be equipped with sprinklers for fire suppression. The ICC code isn't instantly binding. States can choose to follow it or not. Recently Pennsylvania made news when it repealed the sprinkler requirement there.

My local building inspector tells me the housing industry has been fighting this sprinkler requirement for years. I have never seen their arguments against this measure. But I instantly could imagine what their points must be after taking one look at statistics from the National Fire Protection Association. According to the NFPA, the number of home fire deaths has been steadily falling since the 1970s at the rate of about 100 fewer per year. The number of home structure fires has also been declining since that time at the rate of about 14,000 fewer per year. (http://www.nfpa.org/itemDetail.asp?categoryID=953&itemID=23071&URL=Research/Fire%20statistics/The%20U.S.%20fire%20problem)

You might think the NFPA would be doing high-fives with trends like that in place. But you won't see that sentiment on its website, which talks about the, U.S. "fire problem." Well, any house fire is a problem and any death by fire is a tragedy. But is a falling fire death rate a problem?

Other NFPA statistics might also lead a thinking person to wonder whether mandated home sprinkler systems would have much impact on fire statistics. The NFPA says cooking is the leading cause and kitchens are the leading area of origin for home structure fires and home fire injuries, accounting for about 36% or more of these incidents. But no competent builder would put a sprinkler head in a kitchen cooking area. Readers who wonder why should check out the numerous YouTube videos showing what happens when water hits a grease fire.

NFPA statistics also give an indication as to why home fire death statistics are decreasing: Smoking is the leading cause of civilian home fire deaths. So it stands to reason that home fire incidents would abate as more people kick the habit or avoid developing a nicotine addiction.

And NFPA statistics point the way toward a means of avoiding fire tragedy that is much simpler and cheaper than a sprinkler system: Almost two-thirds of reported home fire deaths resulted from fires in homes with no smoke alarms or where the alarms weren't working.

One can understand why home builders would say a sprinkler system mandate makes new homes less affordable, especially considering the debatable impact on fire safety. Figures I've seen put the cost of adding these safeguards at north of $3,000 for even a small house. I am sure sprinkler proponents argue that this figure is insignificant when considering the price of a new home. But if that's valid, why stop with a sprinkler system? Why not mandate CO2 suppression systems for home cooking ranges, or steel I-beams instead of wooden studs?

At some point one has to recognize that life is a series of tradeoffs. At least in my mind, it is hard to justify mandates that pile on costs in the name of perhaps mitigating a risk that is already diminishing and which can be dealt with through less expensive means. � Leland Teschler, Editor

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