Home Fire Sprinklers: Saving Lives and Peace of Mind

Home fires are a terrifying prospect for everyone, particularly for households with young children, pets, and people with mobility or hearing problems. Home fire sprinklers can help.

While everyone loves an open floor plan, that design trend is a contributing factor to the disproportionate numbers of deaths in home fires even as the number of fires declines.

House Fire Adobe STock

“Open space and high ceilings with plenty of air make it easier for fire to spread in a home, and homes today are often built with unprotected wood construction,” says Lorraine Carli, vice president of outreach and advocacy for the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).

“The second issue is that we all have lots of synthetics in our homes, in everything from our clothes to our couch cushions, and we all have a lot of electronics that burn easily. When you combine all that, people can have as little as two minutes to escape when a fire starts to avoid being overcome by smoke or flames.”

The good news is that the estimated home fire death toll in 2022, 2,710 deaths, was 49 percent lower than the largest on record, 5,400 in 1981. However, the overall increase in deaths—from a low of 2,380 in 2012—has occurred even as the number of fires has declined to 360,000 in 2022 from more than 700,000 in the 1980s, according to NFPA data.

“Home fire prevention is extremely important and so are working smoke alarms to alert people to a fire,” Carli says. “But the third way to mitigate death from a home fire is fire sprinklers. When the sprinkler activates, it will either put out the fire in that room or at least slow the spread of the fire to give people time to escape.”

According to the NFPA, the 2021 civilian fire death rate was 89% lower in structures with installed fire sprinklers compared to those without them. The rate of firefighter injuries was 60% lower in fires with sprinklers than in fires without sprinklers.

The most common causes of home fires are cooking, heating equipment, electrical distribution and lighting equipment, intentional fire setting, and smoking materials, according to the NFPA. Smoking materials caused the most home fire deaths between 2016 and 2020 (24%) despite being the cause of just 5% of all home fires.

Buyer Demand for Resilience and Safety

Today’s homebuyers, particularly in the younger Gen Z and Millennial generations, are concerned about resilience and safety. Home fire sprinklers provide peace of mind for homeowners who value having protection in place to mitigate the impact of a home fire.

Homes with fire sprinklers not only provide additional time for people to escape, but they also reduce property damage in a fire by limiting its spread.

A recent national fire safety survey by the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition (HFSC) found that 86% of adults of all ages said fire safety was important when they search for a new home. After learning how home fire sprinklers work, 80% of millennials said they would prefer to buy a home with fire sprinklers.

Green Builder’s COGNITION Smart Data survey found that 85% of Gen Zs and 75% of Millennials are willing to pay more upfront for resiliency upgrades if they would lower their total cost of homeownership over time. The numbers were 50% for Gen Xers, 53% for Boomers.


Source: COGNITION Smart Data

In addition to the safety and property damage benefits from fire sprinklers, homeowners can also take advantage of reduced insurance premiums.

“Most insurance companies provide a 5% discount on the fire protection portion of homeowner’s insurance premiums for homes that have a sprinkler system,” says Peg Paul, communications manager for the HFSC.

That insurance benefit is particularly important as climate events have made homeowner’s insurance increasingly costly and more difficult to obtain.


Source: COGNITION Smart Data

How Home Fire Sprinklers Work

Helping property owners understand how home fire sprinkler systems work is an important component to increase the number of homes that include them. A widespread misconception, which comes partly from images on television shows and in movies, is that sprinklers easily activate, all go off at once and drench a household and everyone in it.

“Each sprinkler has a bulb in it that bursts from extreme heat from a fire,” Paul says. “Typically, only one sprinkler will burst and activate with water at a time. Homeowners worry that their sprinklers will go off when they burn a pizza in the oven, but that’s not the case.”

Home fire sprinklers require little maintenance. Homeowners can easily test their sprinkler system twice a year themselves or have a contractor check them.

While saving lives is the paramount reason to have fire sprinklers in a home, a side benefit of home fire sprinklers is that in many cases property damage from smoke and fire is limited to one space rather than the entire house.

“If your dog knocks over a candle onto your couch while you’re in the other room and a fire starts, the sprinkler closest to the couch will activate and either put the fire out or at least stop the fire from spreading to other spaces,” Paul says. “That gives you extra time to get out but also limits the damage.”

Compliance with Fire Protection Mandates

Home fire sprinklers are mandatory in all new homes in California, the District of Columbia and Maryland, but thousands of local jurisdictions also require them, according to the NFPA. 

Every building code includes a home fire sprinkler requirement in newly built homes, but then individual jurisdictions decide how to use those codes and can amend individual parts of the code, Carli says.

Incentives for Builders to Incorporate Fire Protection in Homes

Home fire sprinklers cost an estimated $1.35 per sprinklered square foot to install, according to the NFPA. The NFPA standard does not require sprinklers in smaller bathrooms or closets, pantries, garages or carports, attached open structures, attics, and other concealed non-living spaces.

“Costs for installing sprinkler systems come down because of economies of scale when a large number of homes are being built,” Carli says. “Developers and builders can also benefit from an array of incentives that bring down the overall cost of development or allow increased density to offset the cost of the sprinklers.”

When a community lacks a mandate for home fire sprinkler systems, authorities having jurisdiction (AHJs) over development in the area can offer incentives for their installation. Among the most common incentives for communities are the ability to build houses closer together for increased density, to reduce the number of required fire hydrants, to allow for narrower roads or for one exit rather than two from a community, Carli says. These incentives can be offered because of the added safety provided by the sprinkler systems.

For example, in Camus, Wash., a developer saved $1 million because he was allowed to build one entrance into the 60-home community rather than two.

In Altamonte Springs, Fla., an incentive program that allowed greater density, narrower roads and wider spacing between fire hydrants also included discounts on building permit and water connection fees, along with a lower fire impact fee. Since 1986, nearly 500 homes have been built with home fire sprinklers there, and the builders have offset 85% to 125% of the cost through incentives.

“The best incentive programs look at everything in a community,” Paul says. “For example, in snowy areas, you may not want narrower roads because they need to accommodate snowplows. Other communities at high risk of wildfire may not want to get rid of a second entrance.”

Environmental Impact of Home Fire Sprinklers

Stopping or limiting a fire with sprinklers saves water compared to how much firefighters need to put out a full-blown fire, and there are other sustainability benefits from sprinklers.

“You get less water runoff from sprinklers, which is especially important because the water from a fire is full of toxins from the materials in a home,” Carli says. “You also have less debris that would end up in a landfill because there’s less damage to the home.”

A 2010 study by FM Global and HFSC, reaffirmed by researchers in 2021, compared the environmental impact of sprinklered and non-sprinklered home fires and found:

  • Greenhouse gas emissions were cut by 97.8%.
  • Water usage was reduced between 50% and 91%.
  • Fewer persistent pollutants, such as heavy metals, were found in sprinkler wastewater versus fire hose water.
  • The high pH level and pollutant load of non-sprinkler wastewater are an environmental concern.

FM Global’s 2021 Environmental Impact of Residential Fires Review, found that since 2010:

  • 1,800,215,826 lb. (816,564,163 kg) of greenhouse gases have been emitted into the atmosphere due to the lack of home fire sprinklers.
  • Installed home fire sprinklers would have reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 97% to 54,006,475 lb. (24,496,925 kg).

Effectiveness Brings Peace of Mind

Home fire sprinklers can be especially important in households with elderly residents who may not hear the smoke alarm in time to escape the house, Carli says. The extra time is also helpful for people with mobility issues and with young children who may need to be pulled from a crib to escape.

Pets are extremely important to many homeowners, too, and are frequently home alone.

“I installed home fire sprinklers in my home years ago when my children were young and we had three Golden Retrievers. It gave me peace of mind knowing my daughters were safe when they came home from school and our pets were safe when we were not home.” Paul says.

The increased presence of EVs, electric bikes, and scooters powered with lithium-ion batteries resulted in some dramatic stories about home fires caused by those batteries overheating. Researchers have shown that home fire sprinklers are effective in stopping or limiting fires caused by these batteries too.

“People sometimes feel complacent about home fires because the number of fires has gone down, but we want people to understand that when home fires occur, they can be far more toxic and deadly today,” Carli says. “We know sprinklers can give people time to escape and can slow the spread of a fire before the fire department arrives, which saves lives and property, too.”