Fire sprinklers don't typically place high on homebuyers' lists of desired amenities but a debate about requiring the devices in new homes has emerged among local industry and government leaders.
At the urging of local fire officials and industry executives, more Maryland communities are considering requiring sprinkler systems in newly built homes. The move is opposed by some local homebuilders, who said such regulations would raise the price of housing and require systems that consumers don't believe they need.
Howard County found itself debating the issue this year after a 12,000-square-foot home was destroyed by fire in March. The house was in a remote area without fire hydrants. It took firefighters 24 hours to put the blaze out.
"We just started shuttling and shuttling and shuttling water," said Capt. Michael Faith of Howard County's Department of Fire and Rescue Services.
Howard fire officials told reporters that a sprinkler system could have reduced the damage in the home. Seizing on that example, fire officials then pushed for legislation requiring sprinklers in all new single-family homes.
But in the face of concerns that homebuilders might not absorb the cost and choose to build in other jurisdictions instead, Howard County passed a compromise. Buyers of new single-family homes must now be offered sprinkler systems, but don't have to install them.
"The starting premise here is that there's some inherent danger in single-family houses" that would be reduced by fire sprinklers, said Tom Ballentine, director of government affairs for the Home Builders Association of Maryland. But despite decades of lobbying from sprinkler advocates, he points out, national and state officials have never required them for that type of residence.
If more local jurisdictions are taking up the issue, Ballentine said, it's only because the sprinkler lobby is shifting its effort to the county and city levels.
"Local initiatives seem to be growing," agrees W. Faron Taylor, Maryland's deputy state fire marshal.
Montgomery County began requiring sprinklers in January after Rockville and Gaithersburg had led the way with municipal legislation. The town of Mount Airy in Carroll County last year became the smallest jurisdiction in Maryland to require automatic sprinklers in new single-family homes. Prince George's County has required it for more than a decade.
Though state law requires sprinkler systems in multifamily homes and townhouses, Taylor says there are no plans to add single-family homes to the state's list.
The number of fire-related deaths in Maryland's residential buildings have varied during the past 20 years but generally have declined, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The agency's most recent figures show that 49 people died in home fires in 2001, down from a two-decade high of 109 in 1982.
Homeowners who do buy them typically pay $1.50 a square foot for a sprinkler system, said Michael Morgan, president of Clearwater Sprinkler System in Baltimore. Sprinkler advocates and fire officials say this typically translates to less than 1.5 percent of a home's total cost.
Morgan says his sprinkler company rarely fields a request for a system installation in a new single-family home in Baltimore, where there is no such requirement. And Delbert Adams, president of Ilex Construction, said roughly 10 percent of his customers buy sprinkler systems for their homes, though he has seen that number grow during the past five years.
Dale Thompson of Thompson Builders, who is building two single-family homes in Montgomery County, said his customers never have sprinklers installed unless there is a requirement.
One of his Montgomery customers is James Dietzel, a retiree who thinks sprinkler systems in such homes are unnecessary and calls the requirement "government run amok."
"We don't feel that we're at any kind of risk for a fire in the house," said his wife, Carol Dietzel. Beside "those ugly things all over your ceilings, I am truly afraid that it would malfunction and ruin our home."
Vincent Brannigan, a professor of fire protection at the University of Maryland, understands that many homebuyers don't think they need sprinklers.
But the real reason, he said, is there are so many popular misconceptions about how they work. Sprinklers are encased in a glass cover that breaks when the room reaches a certain temperature, typically around 160 degrees, and the water flow starts. But Brannigan said many people erroneously think sprinklers break spontaneously, spraying water and flooding houses without provocation.
"It's nonsense," he said. "It just doesn't happen."
Montgomery County officials have fielded inquiries from across the country about the sprinkler legislation, said Peter Piringer, a spokesman for the county's fire administrator.
Fire officials in Baltimore County are among those with an eye on Montgomery County's new law. While no explicit plans for legislation are in place, said Elise Armacost, the county is "looking closely" at Montgomery and other jurisdictions around the state to "evaluate and compare" the options.
Piringer says the legislation is a long-term payoff for Montgomery and the state.
"The homes that are being built today are going to be the historical homes of tomorrow," Piringer says, because with sprinkler equipment, "they're not going to burn down."