Why Fire Departments Should Push for Residential Sprinklers
By Garrett Smith, student, Fire Science Management at American Military University
Over the past 50 years, the types of materials used in home furnishings and building construction have progressively changed from natural solids to more volatile, synthetic materials. Synthetic materials burn faster and hotter than natural materials, and when they catch on fire, can cause catastrophic results in a short period of time – often before firefighters can respond.
In the midst of National Fire Prevention Week, we should be reminded how installing sprinkler systems in homes can make all the difference. Residential sprinklers can be pivotal in extinguishing a fire or suppressing it long enough for fire departments to respond. Research proving the effectiveness of these systems, accompanied by an increase in incentive programs encouraging homeowners to invest in them, has led to an increase in residential sprinkler systems. However, still only 5 percent of family dwellings have fire sprinklers installed. Fire departments and municipalities must do more to educate the public and home builders about the importance of installing sprinkler systems in their homes.
How Do Residential Sprinklers Work?
Residential sprinklers operate in a similar fashion as commercial-grade systems, where either a wet- or dry-pipe system is used. Dry-pipe systems are installed in locations where temperatures drop below freezing for long periods of time. The piping is actually empty, or “dry,” and only fills with water when a local sensor in the home detects a fire. Wet-pipe systems—the more common of the two—have water in the piping at all times and, as soon as a fire is detected, releases water.
Most people don’t realize that how a sprinkler system extinguishes a fire has as much to do with steam as water. When water is heated to boiling point (212 degrees Fahrenheit), it expands to 1,700 times its original volume. So when water is boiled on a stove, the steam you see coming off the water is actually the water expanding. Eventually, if a pot of water is left to boil, all of the water will expand, turn into steam and leave the pot.
When sprinklers activate, a plate on the end of the sprinkler head forces small droplets of water to disperse in an umbrella-like pattern. This water is superheated when it hits the fire and expands into steam. This helps extinguish the fire in several ways: the fire is cooled by the water; the steam separates the oxygen from the fuel source; and the water saturates nearby materials preventing them from catching fire. This all means that minimal water is necessary when extinguishing a fire in its early stages. Water damage from sprinklers is actually much less than that from a fire hose, keeping repair costs low.
A common misconception about sprinklers is that when a fire is detected, all the sprinklers go off. Fortunately for homeowners, this is not the case. Sprinklers are generally installed with a frangible bulb or a fusable link-detection device. Such devices keep water from leaving the sprinkler head until a set melting or boiling point is reached. When the temperature in any given room makes the bulb or link melt, water is then released. Therefore, as long as a fire is contained by that first sprinkler, other sprinklers in the home do not activate.
Sprinkler Systems Save Lives and Property
Residential sprinkler systems are not new, but only recently has there been a big push to add sprinklers in more homes. For one, residential sprinklers have proven greatly successful at protecting life and property. Between 2007 and 2011, all residential fires where residential sprinkler systems were installed showed an 82 percent decrease in deaths and 68 percent reduction in direct property damage . For non-sprinklered homes, the average property damage is around $20,000, whereas damage is only around $7,000 in homes with sprinklers.
Despite these statistics, homeowners and contractors still choose not to install sprinkler systems. The primary reason often comes down to money.
Why People Don’t Install Sprinkler Systems
Adding a system to a new home can cost anywhere from $1.50 to $2 per square foot, making some contractors and homeowners shy away from the upgrade. Existing home upgrades can cost between $2 and $4 dollars per square foot to retrofit a sprinkler system. The higher cost is often from the need to add a well or cistern so there’s sufficient water available. Some states have adopted codes from the National Fire Protection Association that require the installation of sprinklers in newly constructed homes.
Cost aside, there are some drawbacks to having residential sprinklers installed. Wet- and dry-pipe systems present their own set of issues. Wet-pipe systems must be insulated to ensure no freezing can occur. Dry-pipe systems are pressurized with air or nitrogen so water enters the piping only after a fire is detected, but these systems have been known to leak, causing water to release.
There is also an issue with stagnant water. Stagnant water inside the system can build up, preventing the sprinkler from releasing water at the appropriate rate. Stagnant water can also backflow into a municipal water distribution system. To prevent this, backflow devices are placed between a home’s sprinkler system and the main line. However, these devices have been known to fail and allow stagnant water to mix with clean water causing water-borne illnesses.
Need for More Incentives
A number of states are leading the way with much-needed incentives to install residential sprinkler systems. For example, Arizona provides special financing for residents who decide to either make an upgrade to the home or have the system installed during new construction. Other incentives include a reduction in property insurance premiums, water connection fee waivers, and a decrease in property taxes. Organizations such as firesprinkler.org and the National Fire Protection Association are pushing for state and local governments to adopt laws that require the installation of these systems.
Educating the Public about Residential Sprinklers
Fire departments and municipalities need to do a better job of educating the public about the benefits of residential sprinklers. Research shows that despite the benefits of sprinkler systems, the public still doesn’t know enough about them. Local fire departments, insurance agents, real estate agents and any organization that deals with these systems should aim to develop educational programs. These programs should clearly illustrate the cost-benefit analysis of having sprinkler systems installed, including how they can prevent the loss of lives and reduce damage to property.
About the Author: Garrett Smith is a Captain with the Dyess Fire and Emergency Services at Dyess AFB Texas with over 10 years in the fire service, and served 7 years as a firefighter in the United States Air Force. He currently holds an A.A.S. in Fire Science, is a Nationally Registered EMT, and is pursuing a B.S. in Fire Science Management from American Military University.