CHICAGO - The news that the New Hampshire state legislature killed residential fire sprinkler requirements in late June is a reminder that the effort to put sprinklers in houses will be a marathon.

The New Hampshire legislature passed a bill prohibiting local planning boards from requiring residential sprinklers to get a building permit. Both houses then overwhelmingly overrode Gov. John Lynch’s veto of the bill to put the nail in the coffin.

The New Hampshire move follows a similar one in Pennsylvania.

In our June issue, CONTRACTOR reported that on April 25, 2011, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett signing into law House Bill 377, repealing a mandate to require automatic sprinkler systems in most new homes. State Representative Garth Everett (R-Lycoming) was the bill’s prime sponsor. Click here to read the article Pa. H.B. 377 is signed, repeals fire sprinkler mandate.

The bill excludes all new one- and two-family residences from the sprinkler requirement that became part of the Uniform Construction Code, effective Jan. 1, 2011. However, builders must still offer buyers the option to install an automatic fire sprinkler system; provide buyers with information that explains the initial and ongoing costs of such a system; and furnish buyers with information on the possible benefits of installing an automatic sprinkler system. The measure also makes technical changes to Pennsylvania’s Uniform Construction Code.

Jeff Hill, Tyco Fire Suppression's business development manager for California, and Darren Palmieri, Tyco's business development manager for the East Coast, told CONTRACTOR that implementation of residential sprinklers will take decades, as it has in California and parts of Maryland.

The International Code Council mandated residential sprinklers in its 2009 International Residential Code, which took effect Jan. 1, 2011. Passage of the sprinkler requirement started state and local fights to either require sprinklers or to keep them out. Homebuilders associations have been fighting the mandate and have gotten the ear of many Republican governors and legislators who were elected in 2010.

That was the case in Pennsylvania, which reversed its decision to require sprinklers when Republicans took over the statehouse and the governorship. Statewide adoption of residential fire sprinkler requirements is a 30- or 35-year story in California, Hill noted. About 130-150 jurisdictions in California had some kind of residential ordinance before the state mandate was passed.

“The important point is that the timeline for public acceptance and the infrastructure build-out takes longer than anticipated,” Hill said. “You can pass a code but you still need the infrastructure. You have to get into the minds of building officials and political offices on how to do these things and what it takes, and to create the general knowledge base.”

Some of it is as mundane as who performs plan review and site inspections — the building department or the fire marshal. A trained labor pool has to be available.

Palmieri noted that the townhouse fire sprinkler requirement remains in place in Pennsylvania. He hopes that several years of a successful track record in townhouses, along with an upswing in the residential new construction market, will start to wear down the opposition.

Palmieri noted that sprinklers are common in Maryland where 14 of 23 counties have a requirement. As is the case in California, a progressive fire service and fire marshals have been advocating home sprinklers for more than 20 years. Most jurisdictions around Baltimore and Washington are sprinklered. Those in western Maryland or near the Eastern Shore typically are not.

Home sprinklers are getting on the radar screens of local governments in Delaware, where New Castle County is debating if it wants sprinklers in multi-family and townhouses or if it should move all the way to single-family. Other states, like New York and Connecticut, are setting up councils to mull the issue. Sometimes a council is set up by the legislature or, in other instances, by a regulator like a state department of commerce and industry.

“Once have the labor base in place, it’s easy to make the transition,” Palmieri said. “That’s how Maryland has grown in 20 years county by county addressing single family detached housing. It’s easier to go to a sprinkler requirement in California because you already had 150 jurisdictions with some requirement. That’s a lot easier than a place like Pennsylvania where they’re not doing anything and trying to swallow the whole thing at once. I expect that jurisdictions will try to learn from other states. Maybe they’ll look at it a step at a time like getting all the attached dwellings sprinklered first, and the infrastructure like plan reviews and inspections set up, and then they’ll move to single-family detached.”

Sprinkler opponents have stopped debating whether residential sprinklers work; now the argument focuses around consumer choice.

Hill and Palmieri said we’re a long way from a tipping point on a national basis so residential sprinkler must be code-driven for the foreseeable future. The two hope that eventually homeowners, having lived in sprinklered dormitories and apartments, will begin to wonder why they can’t get that level of protection in their houses. Homebuilders have reached such a tipping point in California. That’s why the California Building Industry Association has decided not to fight the IRC requirement, unlike builders in other states. Today California builders are trying to figure out how to use sprinklers as a marketing advantage.

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