June 11, 2018

Mandatory water sprinklers in new homes misguided policy

Greg Bordonaro Editor

There's been a fiery debate going on at the state legislature in recent years that has received little attention, up until recently, but could have a wide-ranging impact on the affordability of new homes and the safety of firefighters and homeowners.

For years, a coalition of fire marshals, fire chiefs, building officials and sprinkler contractors has been lobbying state lawmakers to require certain newly built residential structures to have indoor sprinkler systems, arguing it would save lives and property in case of a fire.

They've been vehemently opposed by the state's homebuilding industry, which argues the pricetag to add sprinklers in new homes — they estimate between $10,000 to $20,000 — would increase Connecticut's already high housing costs with little benefit.

This is a sensitive issue because no one wants to oppose measures that fire officials say could potentially keep residents and firefighters safer, but the sprinklers push is misguided and lawmakers should continue to reject such overtures.

The added costs will simply be passed on to homebuyers, exacerbating the already high cost of living in this state, which has been suffering from economic decline and slowly losing population in recent years. The decision to add household sprinkler systems should be left to the homeowner, not dictated by state government.

This debate has taken on several forms over the years and both sides have accused each other of making false or misleading claims.

In 2015, the Connecticut Fire Sprinkler Coalition unsuccessfully pushed for sprinklers to be included in newly built one- and two-family homes. A year later, they lobbied for municipalities' rights to adopt pro-sprinkler ordinances, but that too was shot down because it would have undone a statewide mandatory building code.

This year, sprinkler advocates tried to get their way outside the traditional legislative process. In April, the state's Codes and Standards Committee, responsible for setting building, electrical, mechanical, plumbing and energy code requirements for all residential and commercial structures, voted 11-1, with two abstentions, to require new townhomes be equipped with overhead water sprinklers.

The legislature's Regulatory Review Committee, however, recently rejected the code change arguing it went beyond their statutory authority and should be decided by the state legislature instead.

Both sides of this debate have clashed on several key arguments, including the cost of installing sprinkler systems. Homebuilders say the per-unit tab ranges from $10,000 to $20,000, depending on dwelling size. Fire marshals and others say those numbers are exaggerated and that the upfront cost provides a positive return on investment, and often results in lower insurance costs.

Sprinkler advocates also say newer homes are more likely to include lightweight, man-made materials that are more prone to collapse during a fire. Homebuilders say it's older homes that pose the biggest fire risks and that most fire deaths occur in dwellings erected before 1985.

Finally, fire officials have said sprinklers decrease the risk of dying in a fire by 82 percent. Builders say hardwired smoke detectors offer adequate protections.

There are other talking points but you get the picture by now. Both sides are passionate about this issue and are using data that support their arguments.

But the sprinkler proposals are a solution in search of a problem. I haven't seen evidence of an epidemic of fires in newly built homes, so the costs seem to outweigh the benefits.

The best fire prevention is homeowners taking personal responsibility to maintain working smoke detectors and extinguishers, and avoiding dangerous situations that could lead to fires in the first place.

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