When the 2009 International Residential Code (IRC) made residential sprinklers mandatory for new 1- and 2-family homes, sprinkler advocates rejoiced that their years of efforts had paid off. But since that time, most state and local governments have opted to either prohibit sprinklers or make them an option in an appendix chapter.
No one who participated in the IRC sprinkler campaign expected anywhere near a nationwide acceptance of the new code requirements. We all realized that the anti-sprinkler camp, namely the home builders and their sycophants, would push back to eliminate the sprinkler provisions from state and local adoptions. I personally thought that acceptance by one out of four jurisdictions was a reasonable forecast. That has not been the case. At this point, even the most optimistic supporters of residential sprinklers must admit that the code change has yielded smaller than expected results.
Who is to blame?
The anti-sprinkler camp spends a lot of money lobbying against the sprinkler requirements, and they continue to win most battles. However, I do not lay the entire blame for our losses solely at their feet. In my opinion, another part of the problem lies within the sprinkler supporter camp.
The home builders' key argument against sprinklers is cost. Yet many sprinkler advocates play into their hands by failing to promote proven ways that residential sprinklers much less expensive.
We have all seen highly inflated or wild estimates of installation costs. I and my fellow advocates continue supplying facts that refute those claims. But, we cannot deny that sprinklers may increase the cost of home construction. I say "may" because I have witnessed installations that were very inexpensive - and in some cases cost-neutral. What frustrates me is the number of sprinkler advocates who unknowingly keep sprinkler costs higher than necessary. They do so by
1), accepting the status quo and 2), failing to promote cost-saving installation methods.
The status quo to which I refer is the traditional stand-alone system sprinkler system. Such systems require a separate pipe system to supply the sprinklers and are isolated from the potable water by backflow preventers. The additional pipe and backflow preventers add to construction costs. Also, some backflow preventers require annual testing, which adds annual maintenance costs to the higher installation costs.
Plumbing-based sprinkler systems meet or exceed installation standards and much less expensive, are forty percent less, to be specific. Here is why. Unlike stand-alone and so-called multipurpose systems, plumbing-based systems integrate the sprinklers into the cold water distribution pipe. For one thing, that eliminates an additional set of pipe devoted to sprinklers. For another, the plumbing pipe constitutes forty percent of the sprinkler pipe. And since all of the water on these systems is potable, they eliminate backflow preventers.
I am monitoring a home being built in the southwest US where the builder is installing plumbing-based sprinklers. My analysis of the complete system, the plumbing plus sprinklers and additional pipe, shows that the sprinklers are going in for around forty percent less than stand-alone or multipurpose systems.
Putting it another way, adding sprinklers to the plumbing system gets you forty percent of the way home on sprinkler costs.
Plumbing-based sprinklers begin with a "home run" plumbing system. The plumber installs a 1-inch manifold at the water service and runs 1/2 inch flexible pipe to each plumbing fixture. This design requires more pipe than traditional "Trunk and Branch" plumbing systems (which, by the way, look just like "Tree" sprinkler systems). However, Trunk and Branch systems (and Tree sprinkler systems) use rigid pipe. They require couplings to connect the "sticks" of pipe, and elbows or tees every time the pipe changes direction or elevation. Analysis data show that the additional pipe on home run systems results in a much lower net costs because it eliminates the material and labor costs for couplings, elbows and other fittings on rigid pipe systems (www.toolbase.org/pdf/techinv/pexhomerunplumbing_techspec.pdf).
In addition to lower material and labor costs, the installation by one subcontractor instead of two reduces overhead for home builders, not to mention the coordination problems with an additional sub. Those factors, and no annual tests for backflow preventers add up to significant savings for home builders and home owners. So why are sprinkler advocates in general ignoring these cost saving systems in favor of the status quo?
The tyranny of mindsets
This might sound like I am implying that some sprinkler advocates intentionally oppose ways to make residential sprinklers more affordable. I am not. My fellow advocates are utterly devoted to protecting homes with sprinklers. The problem lies with their mindsets.
"Mindset: A fixed mental attitude or disposition that predetermines a person's responses to and interpretation of situations."
Mindsets are powerful and difficult to overcome, and I speak from personal experience. It is not that we are necessarily resistant to change or new technology. It is that when we learned about sprinklers, we developed mindsets about them. Just ask anyone who was around when NFPA 13 accepted hydraulically calculated systems as alternatives to traditional pipe schedule systems.
The following story illustrates my point. I have used this in other posts, but it is a great example of the power of mindsets.
Fire chiefs typically underestimate peoples' knowledge about how fire departments work. The general belief is that a fire truck pulls up at a fire, some firefighters rush in and the fire goes out. I learned about that perception when I was doing a station location study for my city. In the project office, we had mounted a large map of the 80 sq. mile area. We used it for attaching templates of first-due areas, second-due and so on.
The city engineer assigned to the project sat in on many meetings where we analyzed the strengths and weaknesses of potential station sites – specifically a potential site's impact on second- and third-due company travel times.
Several months into the project, and after countless discussions emphasizing multi-unit response, the engineer stared at the map and blurted out, "Now I get it! You need more than one engine to handle a structure fire!" I had assumed that our lengthy discussions had made that clear, but he maintained the mindset of most civilians. He saw fire stations as just another neighborhood service. Building a new subdivision? Add a fire station along with the local grade school and other neighborhood services. His mindset that fire stations were a neighborhood service acted like a set of blinders. As a result, he just could not see fire stations as part of a larger network.
The path forward
Today, mindsets are preventing sprinkler advocates from adopting cost effective alternates to the old ways of doing things. To the degree that those mindsets block or slow the adoption of the IRC sprinkler requirements, they are just as pernicious as the anti-sprinkler camps' baseless claims. But as I noted, overcoming the tyranny of mindsets is a difficult process. Two things will help sprinkler advocates to "take off the blinders."
1. Regulatory change
In many states, licensing regulations promote the status quo by limiting sprinkler installations to sprinkler contractors. There are no valid reasons why plumbing contractors cannot install sprinklers as part of the plumbing system. Journeyman plumbers go through the same classroom training as sprinkler fitters. All they need is a short class on the sprinkler installation standards, namely NFPA 13D. If you want to learn more about a particular state's licensing regulations for residential sprinklers, let me know. I maintain a database of current sprinkler regulations in each state.
The same state licensing regulations that cover installers also cover designers and field supervisors. They too can be huge barriers. For example, I know of one state that requires a PE stamp on all sprinkler plans. Such a regulation may have been reasonable back in the day before sprinklers for 1- and 2-family homes, but is now a huge barrier. In areas with small starter homes, the cost of a PE stamp could exceed the cost of the sprinklers.
Another state requires that contractors employ individuals certified by the National Institute for Certification in Engineering (NICET) as Level IV technicians. Several other states require NICET Level III certification. However, my analysis of the NICET requirements reveals that none of the training above Level II mentions sprinklers in 1- and 2-family homes. Again, such regulations may have been reasonable in the era before residential sprinklers, but they are now barriers.
In this era, manufacturers who offer plumbing-based sprinklers also do the designs. Thus, regulations requiring that contractors employ designers are still another barrier.
To date, learning about plumbing-based sprinklers has been limited to manufacturer training. Other training sources purport to address multipurpose systems, but there are two problems with that. For one, only two "multipurpose" systems are actually plumbing-based sprinkler systems. For another, the design portion of the training is limited to stand-alone systems.
I have developed training on plumbing-based sprinkler systems in half-day or full-day sessions that are tailored to specific audiences. Look for my post titled "Training on Plumbing-based Sprinklers."
In closing, I never expected plumbing-base sprinklers to be an overnight success. However, I underestimated the challenge of overcoming the tyranny of mindsets. I hope that this post will cause more sprinkler supporters to take the blinders off and promote less costly systems.