Residential Fire Sprinklers

by Nick Gromicko, CMI® 
In a growing trend that many say will save even more lives than smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors, fire sprinklers are now available for residences.

Residential fires destroy an alarming number of lives and property. In 2007 in the U.S., there were 414,000 residential fires that caused:

  • 2,895 fire deaths;An installed residential sprinkler in new construction
  • 14,000 injuries; and
  • $7.5 billion in property damage.
Residential sprinklers, listed by the Underwriters Laboratories (UL), are now available to homeowners. The development of chloro-polyvinyl chloride and other listed non-metallic pipe has simplified installation, making sprinkler systems more cost-effective. Because of their improved sensitivity, they are designed to respond to fires much faster than standard commercial and industrial sprinkler systems.
Here are a few facts you might not know about fire sprinklers:
  • On average, they use significantly less water to extinguish a fire than would be required by the fire department. Sprinklers use just 10 to 26 gallons per minute (gpm), while fire crews use 125 gpm, per hose.
  • Insurance premiums are often lower for homes that are equipped with fire sprinklers, which help pay for the systems.
  • In buildings equipped with sprinklers, 90% of fires are contained by the operation of a single sprinkler head.
  • Newer fire sprinkler heads are designed to activate independently of one another, leaving unneeded heads in reserve, and sparing water-sensitive items.
  • Fire sprinklers are triggered only by temperatures that surpass a certain heat threshold, making it practically impossible to trigger them accidentally.

A recent study conducted by the UL found that house fires are getting worse; the time needed to escape some types of fires has been reduced from approximately 17 minutes to as little as three minutes, in some situations.  According to the study, this change is largely due to the disuse of natural fabrics for furnishings, such as wool, cotton and rayon, in favor of more flammable synthetics, such as polyester and plastic. Sprinkler systems are thus becoming increasingly more important in residences, just as they have been relied upon in commercial buildings for decades.

Sprinklers respond to fires immediately and automatically from locations that may be dangerous for firefighters to reach. In contrast, fire departments can be quite slow to respond, given the following potential delays:

  • In rural areas, it may take a long time for fire trucks to reach their destination.
  • Calls made at night are responded to more slowly than calls made during the day, as most career and volunteer firefighters are asleep.
  • If the 9-1-1 call comes from a cell phone, the dispatcher will have greater difficulty pinpointing the fire’s location than if the call comes from a landline.
  • While some fire departments are always well-prepared, in many areas, the firefighters will need time to assemble, get suited up, and prepare the fire truck.Residential fire sprinklers can inconspicuously blend in with ceilings and walls
  • Fire trucks can be slowed by traffic, and they can even get lost en route. 

In residential applications, sprinklers are smaller than traditional commercial sprinklers, and they can be aesthetically coordinated with any room décor, and mounted flush with walls and ceilings. They are also inexpensive, relative to the cost of the building, and the damage inflicted by a potential fire. Presently, the cost of a home sprinkler system will add 1% to 1.5% to the cost of new construction, and the price will probably come down in the future. Although more expensive, it is possible to retrofit existing homes with sprinkler systems.

Inspectors should pass the following recommendations on to their clients:

  • Always make sure control valves are in the open position.
  • Always report damage to any part of a sprinkler system immediately.
  • Never paint a fire sprinkler.
  • Never stack items close to fire sprinklers, as this may reduce their heat sensitivity. Tops of storage or furniture should be at least 18 inches below fire sprinklers, according to the National Fire Sprinkler Association.
  • Never hang anything from any part of a fire sprinkler system.

In summary, residential fire sprinklers are a valuable, cost-effective safety addition to any home, although they require periodic maintenance.