Residential sprinkler systems on the way

Posted Sept. 03, 2010, at 7:32 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 12:47 p.m.

On Jan. 1, 2011, the International Building Code will require fire sprinklers installed in all new one- and two-family homes and townhouses.

At first blush, I am sure some folks will consider this change another government intrusion that is unwarranted.

Several states have rejected this change, and some have postponed it for a year or two.

It is, however, based on some interesting science.

Sprinkler systems do save lives.

As you might imagine, a lot of testing goes into fire safety.

Most of this science tells us sprinkler systems can cut off a fire before any serious destruction can occur.

Sprinkler systems can limit the peak destructive energy in a single-family house fire to about 300 kilowatts of energy. This is equivalent to burning about a gallon of oil.

When a fire starts in an unprotected house, the energy released is 76 times higher.

Research also has shown that a sprinkled house will have 3 percent of its combustible material consumed while an unsprinkled home will have 62 to 95 percent of its combustible material consumed. The small loss in a protected home mostly will be materials in the room as opposed to major structural damage.

Many people have been concerned about losses that could occur from accidental triggering of such a system.

Water damage turns out to be a very minor concern of the insurance industry when compared to potential losses, particularly structural damage caused by fire. Losses in a sprinkler-protected structure can be 100 times less.

Research also indicates that fire-related deaths can be reduced by 80 percent when homes are sprinkled and have smoke detectors.

So what does all this wonderful technology cost? It depends on whom you talk to.

I have seen estimates that range from 26 cents a square foot to $2 a square foot of house. Materials such as PEX and CPVC tubing can greatly simplify the installation of sprinkler systems.

Sprinkler systems are common in commercial buildings. Anytime you go into a hospital, school or larger commercial structure, you will see sprinklers.

Sprinkler systems can be wet or dry.

Wet systems are simple. The system is filled with water from the city water system and when a fire starts, the sprinkler head opens and water comes out.

Dry systems are filled with air or nitrogen instead of water. Dry systems are used in buildings that might be susceptible to freezing since there is no water in the plumbing until a sprinkler opens during a fire.

When a fire starts, the sprinkler head has a trigger that breaks or melts at a certain temperature. When the trigger breaks, water flows out onto the fire and puts it out.

This works well in towns and cities where there is water under pressure brought in from the street.

The system has to deliver a certain volume of water in order to extinguish a fire. Normally, in residential installations, the only limitation is the design of the piping. The plumbing has to be large enough to allow enough flow to put out a fire.

Here in Maine, in rural locations without city water supply, commercial and institutional installations have to rely on tanks that are installed in the buildings to be protected. These tanks are filled from a well on site and are pumped to the sprinklers at the proper rate. Many buildings in Maine have these tanks in their basements or in outbuildings to protect the main structures.

We actually have built tanks for this use over the years, primarily for bed and breakfasts and some schools. It always seemed like the integration of a sprinkler system with a larger solar heating system might be an excellent double use of a solar heating tank.

I suspect hot water will put out a fire just as well as cold water.

My biggest concern with this whole issue is not the inherent benefits of sprinkler systems, but rather the fact that I think most house fires start in older homes that have been built and wired in a fashion that is less than current code.

That is conjecture on my part, but I suspect that most code people and electricians might agree with this.

Questions for Tom Gocze should be mailed to The Home Page, Bangor Daily News, P.O. Box 1329, Bangor 04402-1329.

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