Fire and water

June 27, 2005

LAST WEEK, Carroll County began mandating fire sprinklers in new residences. That makes Carroll the first Baltimore metropolitan county to require them for single-family homes. The decision demonstrates how developers and homebuilders no longer reign in this fast-growing subdivision. But more important, it's a bold move that other jurisdictions should emulate. Fire prevention experts say sprinklers are a homeowner's most effective protection against loss of life and property in the event of a fire.

Prince George's County began requiring them in 1992, and more recently, Montgomery County and the communities of Mount Airy, Rockville and Gaithersburg have, too. It's a national trend. They've long been required for commercial buildings and apartments. Last month, a nationwide survey found they're mandated by 22 percent of local building codes. The National Fire Protection Association estimates that the presence of sprinklers reduces the chances of dying in a fire by 80 percent.

But there is a price to pay. In Carroll, officials found companies willing to install them for $1 to $2.20 per square foot (the most costly are in homes served by a well because they require a separate tank and pump). That could easily add $5,000 or more to the price of a home. Sprinklers have proved to be reliable - an individual head activates only when temperatures reach 155 degrees or more. While defective heads and leaks are extremely rare, they are not unknown. The technology has a 50-year record, however, and can significantly reduce property insurance costs.

In Carroll, the most forceful advocates for sprinklers have been firefighters who rightly point out that sprinklers can save their lives, too. Other jurisdictions may want to follow neighboring Howard County's example and require builders to offer sprinklers as a "mandatory option." Either way, it's important that sprinklers become a more common feature in homes so we can all sleep as easily as future residents of Carroll County.

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