Home sprinkler rule likely

County Council expected to approve safety requirement in new, detached houses

February 28, 2010|By Larry Carson | larry.carson@baltsun.com

The County Council appears set to approve a bill Monday night that would require sprinklers in every new, detached home built in Howard County starting Jan. 1. New townhouses in Howard have been required to have them since 1992.

None of the five council members said they opposed the idea after a work session discussion this week, though western county Republican Greg Fox said he's considering an amendment that would phase in the change for rural homes without public water and sewer service because of the added expense of a storage tank and a pump.

The bill is heavily supported by firefighting groups.

County officials said they continue to talk to homebuilders about the problem in rural areas.

The county's fire chief, William Goddard, strongly favors the change in the building code, saying that in the past two years, fires have been extinguished by sprinkler systems in 20 homes in the county.

Council members Mary Kay Sigaty, Jen Terrasa, and Calvin Ball, all Democrats, said they strongly favor the change.

"Its time is well past," said Terrasa, who represents the southeastern part of the county.

"I am definitely for it," said Ball, a former firefighter who represents East Columbia and Jessup.

Scores of firefighters and fire officials turned out at a council hearing Feb. 18 to support the change. A lobbyist for homebuilders opposed the measure, which is part of a regular updating of public building codes.

Robert Frances, the county's director of inspections, licenses and permits, said the change is needed to help save the lives of homeowners and to protect firefighters. Sprinklers have been required in new townhouses in the county since 1992, and are now required in single-family homes in nine of Maryland's 24 jurisdictions.

Requirements for residential sprinklers are part of the building codes "and they are here to stay," Frances said, comparing their introduction to those for standards on electrical systems and indoor plumbing in decades past.

William E. Barnard, the state fire marshal, said "smoke alarms are not enough," because some people aren't awakened by them. Sprinklers can extinguish or dampen a fire enough to help people escape. Only the sprinkler heads above the fire typically are triggered, he said, and the systems normally need no regular maintenance.

Barnard said a 15-year study of house fires in Prince George's County, where sprinklers have been required since the early 1990s, shows that more than 100 fire deaths occurred in homes without them, while none were recorded in any of the 50,000 homes with sprinklers.

But Michael L. Harrison, a spokesman for the Homebuilders Association of Maryland, said builders fear that the added cost of sprinklers would hurt sales in a struggling industry. He noted that Baltimore County rejected mandatory sprinklers.

"I think it's a freedom-of-choice issue," he told the County Council. "If [homebuyers] don't want sprinklers, they should have that right. Somebody would rather have granite counter tops."

Harrison asked the council at least to exclude rural areas without public water and sewer from the requirement. Sprinklers in such areas require a more elaborate system that uses a water tank and a pump.

He said sprinklers can cost $2.50 to $7.50 per square foot, though fire officials said $1.60 per square foot is more realistic.

Harrison said builders work on small profit margins, and sprinklers "are going to price people out of the market."

"How do you equate that to the cost of a human life?" Sigaty asked.

Harrison didn't answer.

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