Residential fire sprinkler systems are inexpensive, reliable, and they save lives. So why don’t more homes have them?
The mandatory installation of fire sprinklers in certain types of commercial structures has dramatically increased fire safety in the United States. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) reports that the death rate per 1,000 fires was 87% lower in all properties with sprinklers than in those without them between 2010 and 2014. In addition, civilian injuries were reduced by 27%, firefighter injuries dropped by 67%, and sprinklers were effective in controlling a fire 96% of the time.
These statistics beg the question: If fire sprinklers are so effective at saving lives and reducing property damage, why aren’t they routinely installed in homes? This article will examine the safety impact of residential sprinklers and their potential benefits and costs, as well answer frequently asked questions about these systems.
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Size of a Residential Fire Sprinkler Cover. (Image Source)
A look at residential fire statistics
According to NFPA estimates, fire departments responded to an average of 358,500 home fires per year between 2011 and 2015, and households deal with roughly 7 million residential fires per year without calling emergency services. Statistics from 2004-2005 estimated that roughly one in 15 US households experienced a fire of some severity each year. And while 76% of homes have a fire extinguisher, these were only used in 5% of fires, and they only completely put out any fire about half the time. In “roughly one-fifth of the fires [in which one was employed], an extinguisher was used to little or no effect.”
The fantastic news about home fires and the overall deaths associated with them is that both statistics have roughly halved between 1980 and 2016, though the numbers remained steady between 2006 and 2016. This decades-long decrease is largely attributed to safety improvements in various equipment, such as heaters, cooking equipment, and irons that automatically shut off, and arc fault circuit interrupters that prevent electrical fires. Given that smoking materials are one of the leading causes of home fires and this number dropped 67% between a 1980-1984 study and a 2011-2015 report, both safer cigarettes and the decreasing US smoking rate likely also play a role in the overall decrease in residential fires.
Unfortunately, not all of the trends are positive. While the number of fires has dropped, the increasing use of lightweight construction materials in the past 25 years has created additional risk during a fire. According to NFPA, a structure using lightweight materials “burns quicker, fails faster,” and “collapses without warning.” The organization states that the average window to escape a fire in a structure made with traditional, dimensional construction is about 15 minutes, whereas the opportunity to escape drops to only two minutes in a home using lightweight construction materials.
The global independent safety science company UL estimates that lightweight materials are used in “approximately one-half to two-thirds of all new (built after the mid-1990’s) 1 and 2 bedroom homes” and “60% of roof structures in the U.S. are constructed with lightweight wood truss construction techniques.” In addition, the widespread use of synthetic materials in modern home furnishings can cause fires to spread more quickly and spur “accelerated flashover,” making it more difficult to escape a fire.
“Today’s homes are burning so much faster than they were years ago, due to all the lightweight construction being used and the amount of synthetic materials,” says Phil Tammaro, a firefighter with the Billerica Fire Department in Massachusetts. “The amount of time that firefighters have to safely work inside these environments … that time is drastically decreasing.”
These factors likely influence the fact that the rate of deaths per 1,000 home fires was higher in 2016 than in 1980, despite the roughly 50% decrease in overall fires and deaths over the same period. The common use of these fast-burning construction and furnishing materials helps make the case for installing residential sprinklers.
“Residential fire sprinklers slow down the progress of the fire, slow down the rate at which the fire grows,” says Tammaro. “It allows families that extra time to get out safely.”
The impact of residential sprinklers
Much like their commercial counterparts, residential sprinklers are incredibly effective at saving lives and property. Homes with sprinklers have an 81% lower civilian death rate in reported fires, a 31% lower civilian injury rate, and a 79% lower firefighter injury rate, while reducing property damage by about 58% – from an average loss of $19,300 per fire to $8,100. Other NFPA projections claim that sprinklers can “reduce the average property loss per home by about 70 percent.”
Table sourced from NFPA’s September 2017 report. (Source)
As the table above illustrates, home sprinklers were also reliable, operating in 94% of fires large enough to activate them, while being effective in 96% of those cases. With this important caveat, these statistics are even more impressive: Of the 6% of cases in which the sprinklers failed to activate, it was because the system had been shut off 62% of the time. If you remove the sprinklers that were manually taken offline from the stats, that’s a system failure rate of only about 2.3%.
Despite their effectiveness, NFPA reports that sprinklers were present in only 7% of reported home structure fires between 2010-2014, and The Fire Protection Research Organization estimated that only about 6% of U.S. homes were equipped with them in 2013.
FAQs about home fire sprinklers
How much do they cost?
A 2013 study of 51 homes in 17 communities across the United States by The Fire Protection Research Organization found that the average cost per square foot of installing home sprinklers was $1.35, adding up to an average total cost of $6,026.
This is a reduction from the average of $1.61 per square foot found in a similar study conducted in 2008, and the drop may reflect increased competition among installers, improved installation methods, changes in NFPA code aimed at lowering costs, and the adoption of ordinances requiring home sprinklers in more communities. It’s important to note that the cost can vary significantly based on location and structure; the average cost per square foot of installation was as low as $0.85 in a home in Elk Grove, CA, and as high as $2.44 for a home in Prince Georges County, MD. Factors that impact the cost include the piping materials used in the system (CPVC, PEX, black steel, or copper), the local water supply, “system requirements and extent of coverage … permit and inspection fees, system design type, custom versus tract homes, foundation type, and the existence of statewide sprinkler regulations.”
To put the cost in perspective – an average of $1.35 per square foot and $6,026 total – consider the average expense of popular home remodeling projects:
- An average kitchen remodel costs about $20,474.
- Average bathroom remodels can range from $6,000 to $14,000 per bathroom.
- Installing wall-to-wall carpet costs roughly $5 to $8 per square foot.
- Insulating an attic/basement runs about $1.75 to $3.50 per square foot.
There are no reliable numbers on how a fire sprinkler installation will affect the resale value of a home and thus offset the cost, though having one will likely improve marketability and value. Lower insurance rates may also soften the expense; in 2008, NFPA estimated that reductions in homeowner’s insurance premiums from installing sprinklers varied from 0 to 10%, with an average reduction of 7%.
“It was a great, pleasant surprise to find out the cost of the system was less than the cost of the landscaping I put on the new house,” explained Chief Brian Black of the Anderson County, SC Fire Department. Black was motivated to install sprinklers in his new home after his wife and two children barely escaped from a fire that destroyed their previous house.
“A fire sprinkler system would have easily contained or controlled the fire, maybe even extinguished the fire, if it … had been installed in my home,” said Black. “That was why when we built our new home, it was without question that there would be a fire sprinkler system built into it.”
Installation of a Residential Fire Sprinkler (Image Source)
What kind of maintenance do home fire sprinklers require, and how durable are they?
The maintenance required on home sprinklers is minimal, especially compared to their commercial counterparts. Each owner is provided with a specific set of instructions for maintenance and testing by the installer, but the essential steps include:
- On a regular basis (recommendations vary from once a month to once per year) open the system test valve to make sure water flows and that the alarm works, if there is one.
- Conduct an occasional visual inspection of the sprinkler heads and any exposed piping and valves.
- Winterize the sprinkler pipes as you would any water pipes in a cold area.
- Make sure the control valve is always left open, so the sprinkler works in an emergency.
- Don’t paint over, block, or otherwise damage sprinkler heads, and replace them if they are damaged.
With minimal maintenance, a home fire sprinkler system is designed to last decades. In 1985, Scottsdale, Arizona passed an automatic residential fire sprinkler ordinance mandating that all “all new structures … be equipped with an automatic fire sprinkler system, regardless of square footage, including residential structures.” In 2008, the City of Scottsdale Fire Department conducted a survey of residents whose homes had been built within two years of the law’s passage: “Residential Fire Sprinkler Reliability in homes older than 20 years old in Scottsdale, AZ.”
Of respondents who answered “yes” or “no” to the following questions (excluding “unsure “or “not answered” categories):
- Only 11% (16/142) indicated that the system “ever had a leak or maintenance problem.”
- 100% (133/133) of respondents indicated that their “fire sprinkler system [was] still in operation.”
Will home fire sprinklers malfunction and cause water damage? In the event of a fire, how bad will the water damage be?
Sprinklers rarely malfunction. The Central Savannah River Area Society of Fire Protection Engineers states that “[t]he chance of a defective head is less than 1:16,000,000 – less than your chance of winning the Lottery! The chance of an accidental discharge is considerably less.” And when the system does trigger in the event of a fire, only the sprinkler head or heads that sense a temperature of about 145-155 °F activate, and thus only those that are closest to the flames.
The majority of the time, only one sprinkler head is needed to control a fire, whereas “90% of all fires are controlled with six or fewer heads … and a study conducted in Australia and New Zealand covering 82 years of automatic sprinkler use found that 82% of the fires which occurred were controlled by two or fewer sprinklers.”
The amount of water used by sprinklers is about 90% less than the water used if firefighters have to respond to and extinguish a fire. And, of course, any water damage is preferable to a pile of ash or the potential for injury and death.
Home fire sprinklers are an effective, affordable method of protecting lives and property
Las Vegas resident Anne Mazzola credits fire sprinklers with saving her home and possibly her husband’s life. A group of contractors had been applying a final coat of sealant to a new wood floor when the combustible chemicals ignited.
“I’m sitting at my drafting table and I hear an explosion. I race out of the room … and I see these enormous red and orange flames pushing their way out of those doors, out of that living room space,” recalls Mazzola. “And I hear my husband screaming, ‘Get out, get out! Fire, fire, fire!’”
Fortunately, the sprinkler system deployed and quickly extinguished the fire before it spread.
“The fire was out, just like that,” says Mazzola. “I just kept thinking, no one had to think; it was just that fast. The [fire] superintendent did say that not only did the sprinklers certainly help save my husband’s life because he had been trapped in his office area – and it would have been near-impossible for him to get out without being burned from the fire – he also did gravely mention, those sprinklers, going off in the zones that they needed to go off, protected and saved 95% of my house.”
Given their efficacy, reasonable cost, and low maintenance requirements, home fire sprinklers are something homeowners should seriously consider when planning a new build or renovations to an existing home. In the next installment of this series, we’ll take an in-depth look at the options for residential installations, including the materials that can be used, an explanation of system components, and the unique considerations for both new construction or a retrofit.
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