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A Hot Debate About Fire Sprinklers in Homes and Condos

An article written for the Associated Press this past week covered a topic that every head of a household should know something about: A regulation calling for homes built after January 1, 2011 to install fire sprinklers.

This rule in some areas has ignited a fight around the country between fire safety officials, who say home fire sprinklers save lives, and home builders who are struggling to recover from the real-estate crash. Many of the builders contend that sprinkler installations should be voluntary, meaning it’s up to the home buyer.

The International Code Council, an organization of building inspectors, fire officials and others who set building standards, recommended in 2009 that states and municipalities adopt codes requiring sprinkler systems in homes and town houses less than three stories high. These regulations took effect this past January.

But with the home-building business down so much in the past few years, the last thing builders want is a new rule requiring them to spend thousands of dollars to install home sprinkler systems that many customers don’t even say they want.

According to the National Fire Sprinkler Association, such systems have been required in most nightclubs, hotels, schools and other public buildings (depending on their height) for more than 60 years. And in 2009, more than 2,000 people died in one- and two-family homes, while 9,300 burn and smoke-inhalation injuries occurred as well.

The National Fire Protection Association says sprinklers will particularly help young children, the elderly and the disabled by giving them time to escape burning homes. On the other hand, a spokesman for the National Association of Home Builders countered that studies do not show that mandatory sprinklers improve safety. Smoke detectors, required by most building codes for decades now, help save lives, as do better materials used in home construction, the association claims.

As of now, officials in California, Maryland, Pennsylvania and South Carolina and numerous local jurisdictions have adopted the code, according to the National Fire Protection Association. Maryland will allow counties to opt out and Pennsylvania lawmakers are taking steps to repeal the rules. A measure to adopt the fire code has lost momentum in the Connecticut legislature. And six other states–Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Louisiana and South Dakota–actually prohibit sprinkler requirements.

One real-estate executive in Connecticut said many of his customers refuse to buy homes that have sprinkler systems because of the very unlikely possibility that sprinklers will go off accidentally and ruin furniture, carpets, and belongings. The $8000 price tag only makes the idea less friendly to home buyers.

At the least, any head of a household should weigh the pros and cons of having home fire sprinklers in addition to smoke detectors. If there are children, elderly, or handicapped people living in a dwelling, sprinklers could give them enough time to escape a fire without suffering third-degree burns or deadly smoke inhalation.