Triangle fire officials promote home sprinklers

Triangle fire officials say added safety is worth steep cost

kpoe@newsobserver.comSeptember 28, 2012 

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Raleigh Fire Department and the Stony Hill Fire Department partnered to show a private dwelling being equipped with a sprinkler system installed. The purpose of the event is to the educate the public on the benefits of residential sprinkler systems. This is a sprinkler head in the kitchen.

CHUCK LIDDY — cliddy@newsobserver.com

Triangle fire officials are touting the benefits of sprinkler systems in single-family homes in an effort to reduce fire deaths, but builders say the cost makes them rare in North Carolina.

The Stony Hill Rural Fire Department in Wake Forest held a demonstration Friday of a sprinkler system in a home being built on Mountain Oaks Way. They cited a 2009 study of fires in Prince George’s County, Md., paid for by the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition, that showed 101 fire deaths in a 15-year period in buildings without sprinkler systems and none in buildings with them.

Sprinklers are an old, proven technology, said Raleigh Fire Marshal Peter Brock.

“In the city, we probably see a sprinkler activation once a week, mostly in kitchens,” Brock said, adding that most of them are in apartments. “They’ve been around since the 1870s.”

Raleigh city code requires all apartments and townhouses to be built with in-home sprinkler systems, but Brock said he’s just starting to see them in single-family homes.

Sprinklers add to the cost of a new home, around $3 per square foot, in addition to sometimes requiring a water system upgrade, said Ian Snider, vice president of Crawford Sprinkler Co. in Raleigh. But they can save lives and substantially cut down the cost of damage after a fire, Brock said.

The home on Mountain Oaks Way is the first time custom builder Thadd Roberts has ever received a request for a system in a single-family home. Because he also does commercial building, he’s familiar with the systems but said he’s skeptical of home sprinklers catching on because customizing a home is already so expensive.

“The biggest hurdle is the cost it adds to a house when everyone’s trying to figure out how they can afford a house right now anyway,” Roberts said. “Which would you rather have, a $10,000 sprinkler system or $10,000 worth of granite?”

Habitat for Humanity installs sprinkler systems in some homes in communities served by 33 North Carolina fire departments, including Chapel Hill and Durham. The sprinklers have activated during at least seven fires, said Floyd Fritz, deputy chief at the Pinehurst Fire Dept., where the program was spearheaded in 1996.

“We’ve put sprinklers in more than 200 homes just in Moore County,” Fritz said.

Fritz said some insurance companies offer discounts for homes with sprinkler systems.

Home sprinklers can be installed to be hidden, heat-activated and individually operated to minimize potential for water damage, Snider said.

The systems typically installed in homes use the house’s existing piping and, unlike most commercial sprinkler systems, are not designed to extinguish the fire but merely slow it down, giving residents enough time to evacuate, Brock said.

Other states have debated bills that would require all new homes to be built with sprinkler systems, but Tim Minton, executive vice president of the Home Builders Association of North Carolina, said a mandate doesn’t make economic sense.

“There’s no question that sprinklers increase safety in homes, but it’s an item that the buyer needs to decide if they want,” Minton said. “If people wanted them, they’d be in every house.”

Minton said it’s natural for apartments to have different requirements because a fire in one rental unit poses a threat to neighboring ones. But residents of single-family homes usually are the only ones to impact their own fire safety.

“What (builders) do is going to be market based,” Minton said. “When you look at housing prices decreasing the last three years, to add something that’s going to increase the cost doesn’t make sense in this economy.”

Poe: 919-829-4563

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