Fire Sprinklers: Are They Worth a Life?

A fire at a home in rural Pennsylvania killed seven children Tuesday night, a day after state representatives voted to repeal a law that went into effect January 1 requiring fire sprinklers in all new one- and two-family homes.

Although the fire that claimed the lives of a seven-month-old through an 11-year-old was in an older farm house, Pennsylvania is one of two states (the other is California) that requires new construction homes to install fire sprinklers in the hopes of saving lives. Some other states, such as Minnesota, whose House Commerce and Regulatory Reform Committee just rejected such a law last week, say it's just too expensive to make this a requirement. Overall, 38 states have said no, and others are still considering it, although some cities enforce a requirement.

"We're not preventing anyone from putting in sprinklers," said Minn. Rep. Joyce Peppin (R), the sponsor of the bill that would prevent Minnesota from allowing the sprinklers. "My overall concern is the sheer cost of it," which, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported she said could amount to thousands of dollars per house.

But how much money can one put on the lives of the young, the old or the bedridden? Is $5 a month too much?

Cost of Sprinklers

Advocates for the sprinklers in new homes say it would cost somewhere around $3,000 to $5,000 per home, depending upon the size of the home. Installation costs average around $1.60
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per square foot, or just above one percent of the home's sale price. That's less than the cost of most kitchen floor tile per square foot.

And when you average out the sprinkler cost over a 30-year mortgage, you're maybe looking at the price of one Big Mac meal per month, or perhaps a jumbo smoothie at Jamba Juice. Would you give up one premium coffee at Starbuck's per month if it meant saving the lives of everyone in your home?

The National Association of Home Builders told AOL Real Estate that when most home buyers were offered an upgrade, which included fire sprinklers or granite counter tops, among other options, most went with the granite.

Larry Brown, NAHB's director of construction codes and standards, said that the $5 cost advocates spout should be put in perspective. There is also all the interest one pays on that $5 per month that would be bundled with your 5-percent or 6-percent mortgage rate. In which case, the $4,000 would balloon to much more over time. And, said Brown in a phone interview, if you live on a property with a well, your costs could more than double or triple with installation.

"When it is 1 or 2 percent of the mortgage, that's one thing, but when it becomes 5 or 10 percent of the mortgage it's not cost beneficial," he says.

Phooey, says AOL Real Estate contributor Candace Evans (pictured left), who spent about $10,000 having flat-head fire sprinklers installed throughout her entire 6,000-square-foot Dallas home, including the attic, when she had it built in 2000.

"I saw a demo at Urban Fire Protection in their 'burn room'; saw how fast drapes lit up, and was sold. Besides, I have had numerous small kitchen fires over the years," said Evans, who also edits the blog "I'm a huge proponent of fire sprinklers. They save lives, reduce water output, and can save community resources." And she says, the sprinklers have never accidentally discharged and she gets a price break on her home owners insurance for having them.

Home Fire Stats

A home fire in the United States is reported every 87 seconds -- at least it was in 2009, the last year for which data is available from the National Fire Protection Association.

Overall, U.S. fire departments responded to 362,500 home structure fires in 2009 that caused 12,650 civilian injuries, 2,565 civilian deaths and $7.6 billion in direct damage. In 1979, about a decade before smoke detectors were mandatory, there were 5,500 deaths from house fires.

Although only 4 percent of home fires started in the living room, family room, or den, these fires caused 23 percent of home fire deaths. Other statistics show:
  • 92% of all civilian structure fire deaths resulted from home structure fires.
  • Cooking is the leading cause of home structure fires and home fire injuries.
  • Kitchens are the leading area of origin for home structure fires (41%) and civilian home fire injuries (36%).
  • 8% of reported home fires started in the bedroom. These fires caused 24% of home fire deaths, 21% of home fire injuries, and 15% of the direct property damage.
Almost two-thirds (63%) of reported home fire deaths resulted from fires in homes with no smoke alarms or no working smoke alarms.

Smoke Alarms Instead?

The NAHB's Brown says that smoke detectors have been required to be hardwired with battery backup in new U.S. homes since the mid 1990s. Even a home doing renovations is required to make the upgrade. If people would just not disable them and replace them every 10 years, they would help save more lives, he said.

But when one looks at the seven children between the ages of seven months old and 11 years old who died in the Pennsylvania farmhouse fire, even a smoke detector would not have gotten them all out alive. In fact, only a three-year-old walked out and found the mother in the barn milking cows (dad was away on a milk run).

There's a good chance Pennsylvania will repeal its law and will stop requiring the mandatory installation of sprinklers given its House just voted to repeal and its Governor, Tom Corbett, is in favor of a repeal, says Steve Williams, a partner with Cohen Seglias Pallas Greenhall & Furman, PC, who has been blogging about the issue in his state. The Pennsylvania House voted 159 to 39 to repeal. It's up to the state's Senate now.

"Advocates and opponents of the mandate disagree sharply on the amount of [the costs], but everyone seems to agree that it is hard to require people to spend more on a home when they are already pinching their pennies," Williams told AOL Real Estate. "I have had almost a dozen calls in the last six months from people who were planning on building new homes, who either now say they can't due to the extra cost for sprinklers, or have decided to hold off until they see what happens with the pending repeal legislation." The issue is before the Pennsylvania senate now.

Should Cities Decide for Themselves?

Back in Minneapolis, in December, two people died in a house fire from smoke inhalation, reported the Star Tribune
. One was a bed-ridden 78-year-old woman whose escaping family members were unable to get her out, and the second-floor where she was collapsed before fire rescuers could reach her. A smoke detector would not have saved her life, but had fire sprinklers been installed in the home, they might have.

Representatives of several Minnesota organizations representing builders, real estate agents and affordable housing advocates are not only against the state requiring sprinklers in new homes, but a week ago Tuesday they argued in favor of a bill that would also prevent local municipalities from requiring it within their borders. Unless the Minnesota Senate votes otherwise, fire sprinklers will only be installed in any new homes built in the state at the request of the home buyer or as an upgrade from the builder.

Habitat for Humanity homes being built in St. Louis, Mo. (pictured) aren't taking a chance on the lives of those who will inhabit the homes it builds. The nonprofit organization is taking extra steps to protect its future homeowners from fire and smoke damage by installing sprinkler systems in each of the 23 new single-family dwellings that are being built in downtown St. Louis.

Through donations, both in materials and labor, the St. Louis chapter was able to equip each home with copper fire sprinkler systems in the basement and main living space. Copper was chosen for the project because of its slimmer profile, which is easier to conceal within the building and install, durability and ability to withstand extreme temperatures, according to a press release.

Missouri doesn't require the sprinklers, but the city of St. Louis does.Its building codes now require sprinkler systems in all new single- and two-family dwellings to be outfitted with sprinkler systems.

Hundreds of communities throughout the U.S. require sprinklers, including Addison, Texas, which has had the requirement on its books since 1992. All buildings over 500 square feet, including residences, are required to be equipped with an approved fire sprinkler system when they are constructed.

It's one thing if the state doesn't want to require it, but some think it's a shame to keep cities from deciding for themselves.

If One Passenger Jet Crashed Per Month...

The way John A. Viniello, president of the National Fire Sprinkler Association based in Patterson, NY, breaks down the numbers, they seem more staggering.

"There are about 250 deaths per month from homes fires," he said. "It is unbelievable. People would close down the airline industry if they were dying on planes, but because people are only dying one or two at a time, and people don't think that a fire is going to happen to them, consumers aren't demanding [sprinklers]."

"We want every state to have it," he says. "The builders keep telling us it only happens in older homes. But when the new homes become old homes, we'll all be safe."

Check out the Fire Sprinkler Initiative to read what's happening in your state, and remember to replace your smoke detector batteries when you spring your clocks forward this coming Sunday.

Sheree R. Curry
, who has owned three homes -- all without fire sprinklers -- is a three-time award-winning journalist who has covered real estate for six years. During her 20-year career, her articles have appeared regularly in the
Wall Street Journal, TV Week, and Fortune. She's been writing for AOL Real Estate since 2009 from a Minneapolis-area rental. She seeks a book publisher -- or at least a lender who'll give a reasonable mortgage rate to a self-employed mom.

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