With his Connecticut home-building business down more than 90 percent, the last thing Robert C. Fusari Sr. says he needs is a new rule telling him to spend thousands of dollars to install home sprinkler systems that customers don’t want.
A regulation calling for homes built after Jan. 1, 2011, to install fire sprinklers has sparked a fight around the country between fire safety officials, who say the sprinklers save lives, and home builders, struggling to recover in the weak economy, who say sprinkler installations should be voluntary.
The International Code Council, an organization of building inspectors, fire officials and others who set building standards, recommended in 2009 that states and municipalities adopt codes requiring sprinkler systems in homes and town houses less than three stories high. The regulations took effect Jan. 1.
John A. Viniello, president of the National Fire Sprinkler Association, said sprinkler systems have been required in most buildings, depending on height, in nightclubs, hotels, schools and other public buildings following fatal fires such as the Cocoanut Grove blaze in Boston in 1942 that killed 492 people.
“People get killed and legislatures and city councils react,” he said. “What we’re trying to do here is be proactive.”
In 2009, 2,100 people other than firefighters died in one- and two-family homes, according to the Insurance Information Institute. In the same year, 9,300 injuries were reported.
The National Fire Protection Association says sprinklers will particularly help young children, the elderly and the disabled by giving them time to escape burning homes.
Steve Orlowsky, program manager at the National Association of Home Builders, said studies do not show that mandatory sprinklers will improve safety. Smoke alarms, required by most building codes for 30 years, and better home construction have helped save lives, he said.
The mandatory sprinkler recommendation is a response to a demand by fire and other officials to improve safety, said Steve Daggers, a spokesman for the International Code Council.
So far, fire and safety officials in California, Maryland, Pennsylvania and South Carolina and numerous local jurisdictions have adopted the code, according to the National Fire Protection Association. Maryland will allow counties to opt out and Pennsylvania lawmakers are taking steps to repeal the rules.
A measure to adopt the fire code died in committee in Connecticut.
Six other states — Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Louisiana and South Dakota —specifically prohibit sprinkler requirements.
Fusari, president of Real Estate Service of Connecticut Inc. in Old Saybrook, Conn., said his customers refuse to buy homes that offer the systems because of an unfounded fear that sprinklers will go off accidentally. Although an annoying high-pitched alarm is the worst that happens when burnt toast in the kitchen sets off a smoke detector, water-soaked furniture and carpets result from errant sprinkler systems.
It almost never happens, but it’s enough to turn off customers, he said.
Fusari, who said he builds three or four homes and condominiums a year — at a range of $110,000 to $500,000 — down from 40 to 60 a few years ago, said the real problem with sprinkler systems is the $8,000 to $10,000 installation cost. Home sales, which began to collapse in 2007, triggering the deepest recession in decades, are weak enough without the burden of higher costs, he said.
“No one is making a profit in this business,” Fusari said. “This is just adding insult to injury in the industry.”
Partly offsetting the cost, insurance discounts averaging 7 percent are generally offered for home fire sprinklers, the National Fire Protection Association said.
Kevin Reinertson, a California deputy state fire marshal, called sprinklers a “proven, life-saving system” and said 153 cities adopted the requirement before state passage. Those cities include Los Angeles, Arcadia, Bakersfield, Beverly Hills, and Fresno.
Viniello rejects the home builders’ argument that the cost of sprinkler systems cuts into home sales. High unemployment and persistently weak housing markets are to blame, he said.
Manufacturers of fire sprinklers stand to gain the most from the new rule. The fire and security business of Hartford-based industrial conglomerate United Technologies Corp. sees the market increasing tenfold, from about $100 million now to $1 billion, in five years.
Gregory Taylor, a vice president of sales, marketing and business development, said the subsidiary of United Technologies is developing a new sprinkler system to capitalize on the huge new market. A water mist system quickly lowers the temperature, blocks radiated heat and deprives fires of oxygen. In contrast, he said sprinkler systems suppress fires primarily by wetting the combustible material.
By cooling the fire and blocking the radiant heat, water mist enables a safer escape while using less water, Taylor said.
Because it is installed with a flexible hose system rather than pipes, homeowners will be able to installing the system themselves, he said. The product is expected to be on the market by summer. Installation costs are expected to be low, but the equipment costs more, on average, Taylor said.
Marketing and sales are being ramped up to target states that adopt the new code, Taylor said. United Technologies’ Fire & Security business has benefited before from fire codes with state-required smoke detectors, he said.
“We get significant bumps up because of legislation,” Taylor said.
In Pennsylvania, lawmakers have taken the first step to repeal its regulation that took effect Jan. 1. Rep. Garth D. Everett of Lycoming, sponsor of the repeal measure that passed the House of Representatives, said sprinkler systems can be even more costly in rural areas, where more equipment would be needed to compensate for water wells having insufficient water volume or pressure. The measure, which passed in early March, awaits Senate action.
Everett, a Republican, also said the requirement is an unnecessary intrusion by government.
“If sprinkler systems are so great and save so many lives, they’ll sell themselves,” he said. “Why do they need government to require it?”