Debate over home sprinklers heats up

June 27, 2005|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

If they'd had a choice, James Dietzel says, he and his wife, Carol, would not have put a fire sprinkler system in the spacious new home they're building in Potomac, a tony suburb of Washington.

Neither smokes, and in all of the homes in which they've lived, the retired couple has never had even a kitchen flare-up.

"My goodness, we've lived in about four or five new homes, and ... we've never had any problems," he said.

But the Dietzels didn't have a choice because sprinkler systems are required in all new homes built in Montgomery County. Dale Thompson, whose company is building the Dietzels' new home, estimates that the fire suppression system adds about $25,000 to the cost of their two-story brick colonial.

Though pricey, sprinkler heads could become a fixture in many new homes in the next few years, as fire safety advocates push for communities across the country to adopt building codes mandating the systems in all new dwellings. There are signs in Maryland and nationwide that the effort could be gaining traction.

Last week, Carroll County officials voted to require them in new single-family homes starting next year - becoming the first county in the Baltimore area to do so and only the third in Maryland. Prince George's County has required sprinklers in all new homes since 1992, and Montgomery followed suit last year.

"There is no better safety factor," said David Victor, who designs sprinkler systems for a living. He installed one a few years ago in his growing family's new house in Hampstead, and he says he sleeps better knowing that "whatever should occur," his children's lives are better protected from fire.

Necessity questioned

But home builders question the need for them, arguing that sprinklers are an unjustifiable expense that few buyers want, especially as they strain to keep up with soaring housing prices.

"I think people feel intuitively safe in a [new] single-family house, and they should," said Tom Ballentine, government affairs director for the Home Builders Association of Maryland. He and other industry officials contend that smoke detectors, already required in all new homes, and modern construction materials and techniques have significantly reduced the risks to life and property from fires.

The debate extends beyond Maryland, with fire safety advocates and real estate interests nationwide arguing the merits of residential sprinklers.

Nationally, fire deaths have declined 8 percent from 1994 through 2003, the last year for which the U.S. Fire Administration has data. In Maryland, the number killed in blazes has varied from 67 in 2000 to 87 last year, as reported by the state fire marshal's office - with Baltimore accounting for about one-third of the deaths.

But fire safety advocates say the national average of 3,900 deaths remains too high, and they note that 87 percent of those killed in residential fires were in single-family homes or duplexes. While many of those deaths occurred in older homes - many without working smoke detectors - advocates contend that putting sprinklers in new homes would still be a major step toward reducing fatalities and injuries.

Earlier this month, members of the National Fire Protection Association, which represents firefighters and others, voted to adopt a model safety code that calls for automatic sprinkler systems in all new one- and two-family dwellings. The final decision of the nonprofit group rests with its standard-setting council, which meets next month. Similar proposals are pending before the group that sets model building codes. If either is adopted, state and local officials will feel more pressure to write those requirements into law.

Maryland was the first state to require sprinklers in townhouses in 1992, and the devices have been mandated since 1990 in apartments, hotels, dormitories, hospitals and nursing homes. Lawmakers have largely steered clear, however, of ordering them put in single-family homes.

The exception, until recently, was Prince George's County, which in 1987 enacted an ordinance requiring sprinklers in all new residences by 1992. Since that requirement took effect, Prince George's fire officials point out, no one has died in a fire in a house with sprinklers.

An issue of cost

The issue comes down to one of sprinklers' cost, and the public's indifference to having them in their homes, experts on both sides agree.

The systems can cost anywhere from $2,200 to $5,000 for the average new house, but can range upward to $25,000 and more for the mini-mansions that are often built in the exurbs. At today's new home prices, advocates say that sprinklers push up the overall price about 1 percent. "Every dollar you add to that house raises the income limit of what a family can afford," counters Ed Sutton, a vice president of the National Association of Home Builders.

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