Saturday, May 15, 2010

Things they do not tell you about home fire sprinkler systems

The dirty little secrets the sprinkler
industry does not want to talk about--the
down side to residential fire protection sprinklers.

By Nick Markowitz Jr.

Ok, we have all heard the hype about just how effective sprinkler systems are in stopping dangerous Residential Fires and why they are needed in new home construction because of how light-weight the construction is0--and yes, this is all true. Sprinklers are one of the best ways to protect your family and loved ones, but they come with a lot of conditions that no one wants to talk about. So let's take a good look at sprinklers, things that can go wrong, and the true cost of implementation.

First problem is the water supply. Where you have good city water pressure you can do a house for around $2500.00, even less if you use standard PVC pipe instead of fire rated  PVC, like Blaze Master. But this is where the problem begins.

Are you going to be allowed to take the sprinkler water off the house water main or will you have to put in a separate water main at the commercial water rate  at an install cost of $5000.00? Also, will you have to install a special back flow preventer at $500.00, which requires annual inspections of $65.00, or perhaps a standard vacuum breaker at $20.00?

What about if you're not home and the system starts to discharge by accident? Will neighbors hear the bell or horn and call 911? Or will you need to have it monitored at $30.00 a month plus $1500.00 for the fire alarm monitoring panel.

Also, what about your homeowners insurance. Will it go down because you're making things safer? Nope! In fact, people who have installed sprinklers voluntarily in their homes have seen insurance rates double or more because of the potential for water damage!

But what if you do not have good water pressure, or let's say you have a well. All I can say is "Get ready to shell out another $5000.00!" This $5K will buy you a pressurized water tank in the ground. And if you have a really big home, the price can be double or even triple that!

We're just getting started here folks.

How about the cold winters some of us experience across the country. There are several ways to deal with this issue and each one has its good and bad points, just as we've found with commercial building sprinkler systems.

One system is known as a dry system where the pipes are filled with air, which holds a valve closed until a sprinkler head activates. When this occurs, the air leaves the piping which allows water to flow through the pipes. A small oil-less compressor is required to keep pressure constant in a dry-type system. This is because of the expansion and contraction of the pipes. You also need to keep the drip drum at the end of the piping emptied of condensate to prevent the drum from freezing and blowing off.

As we have found in commercial buildings, these compressors lose power, drums do not get emptied, and the first hard freeze sends water everywhere. While dry systems work excellently when maintained properly, when they're not, they can cause a good bit of misery.

Then there is the option to add additional insulation in and around pipes to prevent freezing, and though this also works, any movement of the insulation by repair people, kids in the attic, etc., can leave the pipes vulnerable if not properly replaced. Again this works well but maintenance is the key.

Still another option is to use special antifreeze in the pipes. This works well but as they found out in one California residential community where a sprinkler company mixed its own antifreeze, it came out of the pipes during a kitchen fire and when it mixed with the hot cooking oil it exploded. This resulted in the death of a middle aged woman, which brings us to another subject. The sprinkler Industry says "There has never been a multiple fatality in a fully-sprinkled structure where a sprinkler system has been properly installed and maintained."

Well, guess what. Properly maintained means another fee... so expect to pay $150.00 annually for a sprinkler system test and hope you get a company that will actually do a proper test. For that matter, hope you get a contractor who properly installs your sprinkler system in the first place because overnight every Tom, Dick, and Harry will suddenly be in the sprinkler business.

Then, of course, what about when the sprinkler head does go off. Proponents of home sprinkler systems claim it will not be like the ones you see in movies... but they're not telling the whole truth either. Although residential heads are slower than commercial grade, they still put out a considerable amount of water.

I can personally attest to this where a Class R-13 residential sprinkler system was installed in college housing in California Pa., where there was not even a fire. All it was that triggered the incident was a blast of heat from a microwave oven when a student heated food wrong. A single sprinkler head destroyed the kitchen where all the drywall needed replaced. In addition, water leaked through to the room under it, destroying a ceiling. The total bill for this was approximately $8,000.00.

And yes, a sprinkler head and sprinkler piping can and will leak if pressure in the piping is accidentally increased by a faulty pressure regulator. This can also happen due to age as these systems deteriorate. It happens in commercial systems so why would it not in residential?

There has even been a massive sprinkler head recall by several manufacturers because of sprinkler heads that did not trip when there was a fire... and yes you can get false sprinkler alarms when pressure in piping changes. It happens in commercial buildings any time there's a major water break near by and water is turned back on later.

Something to also consider is why just not shut the system off after every one inspects and leaves? Yes you could do this but then again will the insurance company still be required to pay your claim because you shut the system off?
Also keep this in mind, when the first sprinkler systems where installed, it was done for property protection, not for human safety.

Sprinkler systems are by no means the 100% perfect answer. You could well have a properly maintained sprinkler system and still die in a fire in your home from smoke inhalation if the fire develops in the same room where you are located. A classic example would be a person who smokes in bed. A fire which starts in a bed will set off the sprinklers, but well after flames and or smoke have killed you. This is why it is important to still have and use smoke detectors.

So as you can see, all the hype about sprinklers you're hearing does not tell the downside. Over the next few years, you and the community you live in will have to deal with the politics associated with today's huge push for sprinklers in the home.

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