The sprinkler controversy: Whatever happened to state's rights?

ceiling sprinkler mandateSo forget about healthcare, when did it become necessary to establish a national sprinkler mandate? That's what some states are saying about a vote -- perhaps not a mandate, but certainly a super strong suggestion -- by the International Code Council to require sprinklers inside all new homes, which was subsequently written into the International Residential Code.

It's an interesting debate. Certainly, sprinklers make homes more fire safe. But they also add costs -- and those ugly institutional-feeling sprinkler heads, which are hard to camouflage even with the most abundant collection of wind chimes, macrame or Mardi Gras beads.

So far, only a few states have succumbed to the pressure: California, Iowa, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and South Carolina, according to Builder magazine. Several more are in the throes of the great sprinkler debate. Not surprisingly the building industry is apoplectic, estimating the cost of compliance at $8,000 per home. The countervailing forces of fire officials and city planners suggest that cost may be as little as $1 a square foot and can be offset with insurance discounts and increase resale value.

In Pennsylvania, the face-off between sprinkler advocates and the development lobby got downright nasty. The Home Builders Association took the matter to court (here's where the state's rights argument came in), where it maintained that Pennsylvania did not have a right to turn its building code over to an outside entity, Builder reported. "This is about a building code that is out of control," said HBA spokesman Scott Elliot. So far, the court disagrees.

In its "Residential Sprinkler Myths and Facts" rundown, the U.S. Fire Association makes some interesting points. To those who believe smoke alarms are adequate (and both cheaper and easier to live with, except when their batteries run low at 3:15 a.m.), the association retorts: "Smoke alarms save lives by providing a warning system but can do nothing to extinguish a growing fire or protect those physically unable to escape on their own, such as the elderly or small children. Too often, battery-operated smoke alarms fail to function because the batteries are dead or have been removed."

Guilty as charged.

The USFA continues with a perhaps persuasive statistic: "As the percent of homes in America that were 'protected' with smoke alarms increased from zero to more than 70%, the number of fire deaths in homes did not significantly decrease."
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