Monday, May 24, 2010

Home Sprinkler Advocate Voices Opposite Opinion

My piece on home sprinklers, published on 15 May, caused a bit of a stir among those who endorse the mandatory use of sprinklers in the home. A fire marshal based in Oregon wrote me a note and I'd like to feature it here at this time. Be sure to read my reply at the end.
--Nick Markowitz

---- by Eric T. McMullen ----
Monday, May 24, 2010, 11:05 AM

Mr. Markowitz,

I was reading your Blog titled “Things they do not tell you about home fire sprinkler systems” and felt compelled to contact you to challenge some of your assertions about fire sprinklers. My computer system at work does not allow me to post a comment directly to your blog, so I thought I’d send you an email.

I will attempt to address your comments in the order you made them;

You mentioned needed a “good” city water pressure, and while good may be a relative term, a residential fire sprinkler system can be designed for pressures as low as 7 psi. I don’t know of many, if any, municipal water supplies that can’t provided 7 psi.

Your point about connection to the water main is valid in many areas. In Oregon, multipurpose systems are allowed to be connected directly to the potable water system. In the case of multipurpose systems, there are no stagnant water issues and no backflow preventer or vacuum breaker requirements. The additional cost of systems development charges and standby fees is a problem, we are attempting to alleviate this problem in Oregon through legislation that will prevent the additional charges and fees on fire sprinkler systems in one- and two-family dwellings.

Your comments about homeowners insurance are just flat wrong and have been for some time now. Many years ago, there were some insurance companies that actually charged more when fire sprinklers were installed, but that Neanderthal way of thinking has long since passed. Every major insurance carrier in the Oregon currently offers discounts for fire sprinklers in one- and two-family dwellings. Insurance companies came to the realization that the amount of damage done by fire sprinkler systems pales in comparison to the damage done by fire, smoke and heat. Scottsdale, AZ has had a fire sprinkler ordinance in place since 1986 and their data indicates losses dues to fire in sprinklered homes averaged $1,945 compared to $17,067 in non-sprinklered homes.

Your estimates on using a well as a water source are quite a bit high, Talco offers a pump and tank package for NFPA 13D systems at a cost of $2,200. The size of the home will not double or triple the cost of the pump and tank, it may increase the size of the tank by 40 or 50 gallons, but that won’t increase the cost much. In many cases, if the well has the capacity, the system can be designed to use the well pump to supply the fire sprinklers and the well casing and recovery rate to satisfy the stored water requirements. I can design a system with flow demands as low as 16 gpm at 7 psi, which many wells can supply.

As far as cold weather and freeze mitigation goes, dry and antifreeze systems are not practical for one- and two-family dwellings for many of the reasons you state, however the standard does allow them. There are practical approaches outlined in the standard to deal with freeze problems in wet systems. While the insulation can be moved, one can make the same case for any water pipes in your home. A fire sprinkler system, installed correctly, has no higher chance of freezing than any other domestic water pipe.

With regard to maintenance, there are practically no maintenance requirements for NFPA 13D systems, and certainly no mandate in the standard to pay a fee or have a third-party inspector do an annual service on the system. Multipurpose systems that are connected to the potable water system need the same maintenance as the other water pipes in your home, which for most folks, is none.

Accidental discharge of a fire sprinkler head is around 1 in 16 million and accidental leaks of the piping are no more common than potable water piping. The story you relayed about the accidental discharge due to a microwave oven is highly suspect. The lowest temperature sprinkler head is 135 degrees Fahrenheit and I find it very hard to believe that kind of heat could escape from a microwave and make it to the ceiling level without dissipating, unless the contents inside the microwave were actually on fire. If you can provide me the actual fire report showing otherwise, I will stand corrected.

Yes, residential sprinkler heads have been recalled, so have coffee makers, laptop batteries, Toyota vehicles…….product issue arise from time to time, it doesn’t mean we abandon a sensible idea because of one recall.

The fire service has never advocated for fire sprinklers only, we have always educated people on the need for both smoke alarms and fire sprinklers as a package together, your chance of survival with both rises exponentially.

In closing, I must say that I am surprised that your blog professes to be about fire and electrical safety, yet you attempt to derail one of the most effective tools we have to guard against dying in a fire in our homes. I have to wonder if, as a master electrician, you feel the same way about GFCIs or Arc Fault protection in our homes?

Regards, Eric T. McMullen

Assistant Chief ~ Fire Marshal
McMinnville Fire Department
McMinnville, OR

---- And my reply ----

Date: Monday, May 24, 2010, 8:21 PM

Thanks for the comments.

Working [water] pressures here in my community are very low where on the tops of hills and people who have opted for systems have had to install tanks per the sprinkler installers. Maybe the installers are wrong or just selling more than needed. Part of the problem is you must be a licensed master plumber to install them in Allegheny County. That's why the [high] cost. This is also a big union area, again [it's] why the costs are so high.

The insurance thing is for real here. [I] had a customer install sprinklers 3 years ago and his premiums went up when he notified his carrier he installed them. Maybe in your part of [the] country, since you have codes in place, they behave themselves, but not here, yet. Maybe once it is state wide they will level out.

As far as microwave going off and causing the damage, I have the pictures. Remember again this was in college housing.

As far as leaks, 6 - 10 residential systems I know customers have in their homes have leaked or frozen up. It is the nature of the weather cycle around here. We're up [and] down all winter and it affects things in ways you would not believe, unless you saw it with your own eyes. We can be 3 degree in morning and 38 by lunch, then back down to zero overnight.

[Regarding] installation issues, I am constantly responding to sprinkler system issues both commercial and residential, even in the summer. I just had a big fight with Penn Hills, Pa fire depts who refused to properly respond to a sprinkler call [where] $10,000 in damage happened.

Some areas over pressure is also a big problem. Just try and find an emergency restoration clean up crew or even a sprinkler crew available here during the winter when temps drop down below zero. I have had to wait 2-3 weeks to get [a] sprinkler company rep on site because of all the damage.

You should talk to Jack Mason, CFI Fire Marshal For Penn Hills and hear all his worries over this.

I have responded to 3 systems so far this year, commercial, where single heads went off for no reason at all.

I am not derailing sprinklers, I am just stating what I know can and does go wrong with them. If we are going to promote things, let's give both sides of the issue. All I hear from sprinkler advocates are rose colored glasses. What kind of backlash do you think is going to happen around here after the sprinklers are in and start popping because of installation issues. People are going to shut them off and ignore them just like the smoke detectors they take the battery's out of because they always false.

Take Anti-lock brakes, [the] greatest thing to come out, however they have killed hundreds who did not use them right, [those who] lifted their foot off [the] pedal when they applied them because they thought something was wrong.

I am glad things are working out over there in Oregon, but your dealing with issues there which are different here. I am not saying "do not put them in," but I am saying, "let's think things through before we mandate something that's going to come back and get us."

When the first person dies in a home with a sprinkler system because we have not explained exactly why and how something works, start expecting lawsuits and TV investigations.



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