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Sprinkler systems divide fire officials, builders

June 13, 2010|By HEATHER KEELS

WASHINGTON COUNTY -- New single-family homes in Washington County could be required to have automatic fire sprinkler systems under a building code update up for consideration next month.

Home fire sprinklers save lives, but whether to require them has been controversial because sprinkler systems add $1.25 to $5 per square foot to the cost of a home, county Permits and Inspections Director Daniel F. DiVito said.

The requirement for sprinklers in new single-family homes was introduced in the 2009 International Residential Code, which has been adopted by the state of Maryland. Counties now must decide whether to enforce the state's version or to adopt the code with local amendments, DiVito said.

Some potential amendments suggested by interested parties include waivers for small homes, an opt-out allowance for owners who agree to attend a class about the benefits of sprinklers or paying a fee passed along to local fire companies.

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After researching the sprinkler issue, Washington County's building code committee voted, by a one-member margin, to recommend adopting the new sprinkler requirement without amendments, DiVito told the Washington County Commissioners Tuesday.

A public hearing on several code updates, including the sprinkler issue, will be held July 6, DiVito said. After the hearing, the code updates will go to the commissioners for approval.

The home sprinkler requirement is endorsed by local fire officials, but opposed by some local builders and representatives of the Home Builders Association of Washington County.

Those in favor of the requirement point to sprinklers' dramatic reduction in the risk of death in a fire and in resulting property damage.

In the event of a fire, the risk of dying decreases by about 80 percent with sprinklers and average property loss decreases 74 percent, according to a report by the nonprofit National Fire Protection Association.

At Tuesday's commissioners' meeting, DiVito showed videos from the National Institute of Standards and Technology showing the spread of a Christmas tree fire in test settings with and without sprinkler systems. In the nonsprinkler video, the room is filled with thick smoke within 45 seconds and the fire quickly consumes the room. In the sprinkler setting, the sprinkler puts the fire out in about two minutes.

"In my opinion, it's something that's necessary," DiVito said. "The technology that's out there now is absolutely amazing."

DiVito said the price of sprinkler systems is coming down and new "combination" systems use the home's regular plumbing so water is circulated automatically, and no special maintenance or testing are needed.

In letters to the commissioners, Washington County Director of Emergency Services Kevin Lewis, the Maryland State Firemen's Association, Hagerstown Fire Chief Gary Hawbaker and the Washington County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association expressed support for the requirement.

Douglas C. Alexander, chairman of the Maryland State Firemen's Association Residential Sprinkler Committee, wrote that in addition to saving lives, sprinklers have environmental benefits because less water is used to fight fires and less smoke is generated.

Alexander said home fire sprinklers cost about 1 percent to 1.5 percent of the total cost of a home, comparable to a carpet upgrade or granite countertops. Sprinkler systems also result in homeowners insurance savings of about 8 percent to 13 percent of the premium in most areas of Maryland, he said.

Tim Fields, president of Royal House Construction Inc. and a member of the county's building code committee, said he thought it should be individuals' right to choose whether they want a sprinkler in their home.

"I think it's obnoxious that the government is telling people what they can and cannot do in the privacy of their own home," Fields said.

Fields said out of the hundreds of homes he has built in this community over the past 20 years, he has never had a client request a sprinkler system.

He said he hasn't seen data to convince him that fire deaths are a problem in homes that meet modern standards for smoke detector placement and emergency exits.

Fields said he could agree to awareness measures like requiring new home buyers to attend an educational seminar about the pros and cons of sprinklers, but that the final choice should be up to them.

Fields and other local builders said while the cost of sprinkler systems is coming down, they can still be very expensive for homes on private wells due to the need for a tank and pump.

For someone saving up to build a home, that extra cost means more planning and long-term saving, Fields said.

Mike West, superintendent for Conrad Homes of Hagerstown, said adding to the cost of a house can only hurt builders at a time when home construction is already slowed almost to a halt.

"There's not a lot of houses being built and when you keep adding more codes to increase the cost of a house, people aren't going to want to build," West said.

Fields said the majority of the code committee decided no cost should trump safety.

"I agree with that because I'm not able to put a price on a human life," he said.

However, if safety were the only consideration, motor vehicles, cigarettes and alcohol would all be outlawed, Fields said.

"This is America, and people have the right to make choices regarding their own family," he said.

If you go

What: Public hearing on code changes

When: July 6, 9 a.m.

Where: Washington County Commissioners' meeting room, second floor of 100 W. Washington St. in Hagerstown

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