Home Fire Sprinklers ... Safety's Edge

In the middle of a sound sleep you're abruptly jangled awake by interconnected smoke alarms blaring throughout your home. How much time do you have to get you and your family out of harm's way? Ten minutes, 20? Try three minutes. That's right, an average of 180 seconds is all it takes for a newer home, with its more flammable furnishings and building materials, to flashover and consume your life and property. That's according to Medford Fire Marshal Greg Kleinberg and supported by the research efforts of the national Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition.

But, invest in one of those sprinkler systems and you'll acquire considerably greater peace of mind on the question of fire protection. "If a home has smoke alarms and a fire sprinkler system," Kleinberg asserts, "the chances of dying in a fire are nearly zero." This isn't mere idle chatter. Various reputable studies document how fire sprinklers increase your survival chances by an amazing 75 percent or more.

protection at what price?

Aesthetics and operational misconceptions aside, the biggest objection to home fire sprinkler systems is the most obvious one: cost. While these systems are not inexpensive, you may find them much more affordable than expected.

If you're living within a fire district, installation will cost somewhere in the range of $1 to $3 per square foot of coverage area. Since each dwelling poses its own challenges, contractors cannot bid on flat rates. But industry experts generally agree on this per square foot figure.

Those outside fire district boundaries are required by building codes to provide some form of fire fighting capability, sprinklers being the most efficient and economical alternative. However, unless your well pump is exceptionally strong, you'll need to add a holding tank of about 500 gallons capacity, serviced by a United Laboratories-approved pump. These pieces, installed, will add another $2,000 to $3,000 to your safety investment.

Once online, maintenance costs are negligible.

Depending on your initial investment, the amount of insurance premium reductions and your interest deductions, a residential fire sprinkler system's net cost can come in around 50 cents a day on a 30-year mortgage. Now that's affordable peace of mind.

Tony Cook, branch manager for Pacific Fire Sprinkler Company of Central Point, says this safety margin is entirely intentional. "Residential systems are designed to protect the occupants of the structure so they can egress safely. Commercial systems are designed to put the fire out." Both Cook and the fire marshal agree, however, that home sprinklers put out the fire about nine out of every 10 times, while causing minimal water damage.

"Thanks to Hollywood depictions, many people envision massive amounts of water pouring into their homes should the sprinklers activate," Kleinberg says. He goes on to note this as one of the most common objections raised. It's a misconception though. Home fire sprinklers activate individually, and only in the immediate vicinity of an ignition source. A fire in the kitchen won't trigger flooding in your upstairs bedrooms. As for the risk of accidental activation, Kleinberg says it's almost unheard of.

The next most common objection relates to aesthetics. The thought of pipes and sprinkler heads accenting their ceilings leaves many homeowners cold to the idea. This, too, is a misconception. As Cook points out, "We can install the majority of piping in walls or joist spaces above the ceiling. Then the only exposed part is the sprinkler head. Even these can be recessed behind flush-mounted, colored plates that will drop away at a given temperature so the sprinkler can go to work. Done properly, these plates look no more obtrusive than a ceiling-mounted speaker."

Despite efforts to require fire sprinklers in all new homes, current local building codes remain silent unless you're building outside fire department service areas. If so, you must provide a fire fighting alternative; sprinklers make the most sense. As a fire marshal, Kleinberg looks to the day when sprinklers will be mandatory in all new home construction. He compares current resistance to that encountered from the auto industry when Congress debated the question of requiring mandatory airbag installations. Once forced into it, auto manufacturers discovered the marketing advantages of offering more airbags than Congress specified.

Just as with airbags, insurance companies offer significant rate reductions to homes equipped with smoke alarms and fire sprinklers.

If you decide to install or retrofit a fire sprinkler system in your home, be sure you work with a contractor who is licensed by the state in this specialty. Each home requires somewhat unique design and system considerations. Getting it right, right from the start, could make the difference between a minor annoyance and a major disaster.

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