Virginia Regulators to Consider Sprinkler Requirement

Fire officials urged Virginia regulators this week to require sprinklers in all new homes, while builders argued it would drive up the cost and put home ownership out of reach for many.

More than 200 people — split about evenly between uniformed fire officials and home builders — piled into a public hearing of the Virginia Board of Housing and Community Development Monday to debate the proposal, which would require sprinklers in all new homes beginning in 2011.

It was passed in September by an international organization that sets building codes used in 48 states and the District of Columbia. So far, no states have jumped on board.

A committee of the Virginia board voted last month not to require the sprinklers. The board will continue to collect submitted comments and have one more public hearing on the proposal next spring before taking a vote.

“I don’t think any of us are here to argue that putting water on fire is a bad idea,” said Vince Butler, a second-generation northern Virginia homebuilder and third-generation firefighter.

Butler argued that requiring the sprinklers in new homes — about 1 million of which are built a year in the country — wouldn’t do anything to protect those who live in the more than 130 million existing homes in the United States.

Opponents of the plan argue it could add up to $5,000 for homes on public water systems and as much as $10,000 for those with wells. They say the added cost could be the final blow to an already struggling housing market.

“There are a lot more affordable ways to save a life for a lot less money,” said Randy Melvin of Winchester Homes, a builder in Virginia and Maryland.

Melvin said today’s homes have numerous required fire safety features, such as mandatory smoke detectors. Besides price, he said there are a number of drawbacks to sprinklers, including recent recalls. Kids throwing a ball in the house or someone moving a bed could accidentally set them off, causing thousands of dollars in water damage.

Builders and developers said the sprinkler companies should advertise just like those who offer other services, letting home buyers decide if the systems are right for them.

But fire officials argued that voluntary programs don’t work.

“If we said smoke detectors are optional today, there wouldn’t be smoke detectors in homes,” Charlottesville Fire Chief Charles Werner said.

State Fire Marshal Ed Altizer said Virginia was a leader when it came to requiring sprinklers in nursing homes, colleges and other public buildings and it was time to do the same for private homes.

The average fire doubles in size about every minute, fire officials said. It takes an average of three minutes to evacuate a house, and the statewide average response time for firefighters is about six minutes.

“Its time has come,” Virginia Professional Fire Fighters legislative director Art Lipscomb told board members of a sprinkler requirement. “It will save lives, and it takes bold action on your part to do that.”