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The Green Benefits of Home Fire Sprinklers

Posted by Eric Skare, Guest Columnist

Feb 2, 2015 4:50:00 AM

Installing a residential fire sprinkler system yields significant social, environmental and economic benefits for all parties involved.

According to the 2014 Harris Poll conducted on behalf of the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition, 74 percent of U.S. homeowners would be more likely to buy a home with a fire sprinkler system than one without, and communities are starting to realize the far-reaching benefits of sprinkler requirements. Furthermore, seven out of 10 homeowners believe that a fire sprinkler system actually brings more value to a house.

This highly receptive atmosphere for fire sprinkler systems translates into an opportunity for homebuilders. Public support is likely to broaden even more as American homebuyers discover the many significant social, environmental and economic benefits fire sprinkler systems provide. In short, home fire sprinkler systems are sustainable in more ways than one.

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Operation

Residential fire sprinkler installations have been supported by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standard 13D since 1975 to protect life safety in single-family homes. Since 2011, they have also been mandated by the International Residential Code (although, since states can individually reject sections of this code, the mandate is still not required in most states). As the public continues to recognize the value of fire sprinklers, states will have little choice but to eventually require them in all new construction.

Types of Residential Fire Sprinkler Systems

Here's a summary of the two most common types of sprinkler installations.

Uponor Sprinkler Installation Guide

Multipurpose fire sprinkler systems (click image to download the full guide) require the least number of fittings and connections and are the simplest to test. Since they are integrated with the domestic cold-water plumbing, homeowners simply turn on a faucet to test whether the sprinklers would have running water in an emergency. Multipurpose systems are most commonly installed with flexible PEX (crosslinked polyethylene) piping. Two other main types of residential fire sprinkler systems exist:

Standalone sprinkler system: In this system, the aboveground piping serves only fire sprinklers, with a completely separate set of pipes directly connected to them. These are commonly installed with CPVC pipe, but PEX pipe can be used in certain applications as well. Standalone sprinklers usually require a backflow preventer to prevent stagnant sprinkler system water from contaminating the domestic water supply. Although the underground, or supply piping, is permitted to serve domestic use as well as sprinkler system use, once the split is made, the systems are completely separate.

Passive purge system: These systems serve a single toilet in addition to the fire sprinklers. Although similar to standalone systems, they usually do not require a backflow preventer, even though stagnancy could still be an issue. The National Fire Protection Association recommends installing the system as a loop, or locating the toilet on a remote portion of the system to ensure the water moves through a majority of the system when that single plumbing fixture is used. These systems can be installed with PEX or CPVC piping.

 

A fire sprinkler system’s operation is fairly straightforward. Although different types of systems exist, a multipurpose system, which efficiently integrates fire sprinklers with the cold-water plumbing lines in the house, tends to be the most economical for residential applications. In a multipurpose system, the sprinklers perform just like any other plumbing fixture. These systems were created specifically for residential use and are designed to be easily and seamlessly incorporated into a home’s construction process. Multipurpose systems cut down on the extra tubing, connections, backflow devices and stagnant water buildup of alternative standalone systems.

Whether in a multipurpose or standalone system, each sprinkler operates individually. That means that if one goes off, the others won’t, unless there is a fire under multiple sprinklers. Heat from a fire breaks either a glass bulb or fusible link on the sprinkler when it reaches between 155 and 165 degrees Fahrenheit (depending on the type of sprinkler). This releases a plug and allows water to flow out through a deflector and onto the fire. The timing of all this is relatively quick, allowing a fire to be controlled or extinguished before it causes any serious damage.

Social Impacts

The ability to quickly suppress a fire while it’s still small lies at the heart of a fire sprinkler system’s overall value. After all, the system’s ultimate goal is to protect life for occupants by giving them a chance to escape the deadly effects of fire in today’s home.

Escape Time: Timing is more crucial today than ever before. Due to changes in construction and the increased use of modern foams and synthetic fabrics in carpeting, furniture, etc. — flashover, or the explosive ignition of flammable gases released by burning materials in the  home, now occurs in less than five minutes. It used to occur in 30 minutes. This means that residents have far less time to escape a burning home before being overcome by smoke inhalation. Children and the elderly are especially vulnerable under such circumstances.   

Injuries: Waiting for the fire department to arrive could lead to a large conflagration that substantially increases the risk of injuries. Aside from the aforementioned flashover and smoke, falling debris could also become a factor — and not just for the home’s residents. Once the firefighters arrive, their lives are placed in significantly greater danger as they are confronted by a large fire.

With residential fire sprinklers installed, the fire can be extinguished or managed early on, preventing flashover and the need for firefighters to place themselves at risk. As a result, many lives are directly saved by fire sprinklers.

Environmental Impacts

Water Savings: Besides their primary life-saving role, fire sprinkler systems also yield a number of environmental benefits. First, they save significantly on water usage. If a home does not have fire sprinklers and the fire department has to extinguish a fire, the water from their hoses can release up to 250 gallons of water per minute. Compare this with the 15 gallons per minute released by fire sprinklers. Indeed, using residential fire sprinklers to extinguish a fire can amount to as high as a 91 percent reduction in water usage. Essentially, a smaller amount of water applied early in a fire incident is much more effective than the larger amounts that are typically used by firefighters.
It is worth noting that some homeowners object to installing fire sprinkler systems because they fear the water damage that could occur. However, firefighters’ hoses cause much greater water damage. Additionally, the lack of sprinklers will allow a fire to grow and cause even more destruction.

Short-term Pollution Reduction: Fire sprinkler systems also reduce the amount of greenhouse gases released into the air during a fire by 97.8 percent, according to an FM Global Technical Report. That’s because less materials burn. Pollutants released in water runoff are also reduced because there is less water running off from fire sprinklers and, again, less materials burning and releasing chemicals.

Long-term Pollution Reduction: The greenhouse gases used in producing, transporting and assembling replacements for products destroyed in the home during a large fire are also reduced because the sprinklers would not have allowed a fire to grow large enough to inflict such destruction in the first place. These long-term environmental savings, although not as observable, are just as important as those of the short-term.

Economic Impacts

Residential fire sprinkler systems lead to a number of important economic benefits for all parties involved in their installation.

“Trade-Ups”: There are several tradeoffs, frequently referred to as “trade-ups,” that are considered when fire sprinkler systems are suggested as a requirement for new subdivisions or developments. For example, if a neighborhood requires a sprinkler system in each home, there is less of a need for roadways to be wide enough to accommodate fire department vehicles and equipment, meaning narrower roads and fewer resources are expended. Additionally, fewer fire hydrants and smaller water mains are required, leading to additional savings.

The space between houses can also often be reduced if a neighborhood requires fire sprinklers, since the likelihood of a fire spreading to an adjacent exposure is virtually eliminated. Increasing the amount of homes on a particular plot of land provides an economic benefit to the builder, with more homes translating into higher profits.

Damage: It is also important to consider the cost of damage to a home. According to the Scottsdale Study, the average loss from fire in a sprinklered home was around $2,000. Homes without fire sprinklers suffered around $45,000 in post-fire damages, a 2,150 percent increase.

Home Insurance: Finally, insurance companies often offer discounts to owners of homes with residential fire sprinkler systems. On average, homeowners can potentially save between five and 15 percent from the fire portion of their insurance premium.

Worth the Money

The only serious objection homeowners can raise to installing residential fire sprinkler systems is the added cost. Estimates may vary, but generally, a fire sprinkler system will be one to two percent of the home’s total cost — a minimal investment in the homeowners’ peace of mind and protecting their loved ones.

With their significant social, environmental and economic sustainability advantages, installing residential fire sprinkler systems is more than just a win-win scenario. It’s really a five-win scenario, benefitting communities, developers, builders, homeowners and our planet Earth.

About the author: Eric Skare is the product manager of Fire Safety at Uponor, a provider of PEX plumbing, fire safety and radiant heating/cooling systems for residential and commercial applications. He can be reached at Eric.Skare@uponor.com

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