Home builders beating back fire sprinkler laws

June 29, 2011 - 5:00 PM

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Nearly three dozen states have rejected the idea of requiring sprinkler systems in homes by enacting legislation or rules that prohibit mandatory installation.

Home builders, still reeling from the recession, say requiring sprinklers would add to their costs. They have found allies in state legislatures and rule-making bodies that have turned aside arguments by fire safety officials that requiring sprinklers in homes save lives.

The National Association of Home Builders has not taken a position on state action banning mandatory fire sprinklers in homes, said program manager Steve Orlowski, but the group has argued that installing residential sprinklers should be up to homeowners.

Either through legislation or code, 34 states have prohibited mandatory residential fire sprinklers, Orlowski said. Only two states — California and Maryland — have adopted codes requiring installation of home sprinklers, he said.

In other states, sprinkler legislation died or is pending until next year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Connecticut, for example, is deferring action until next year. A measure requiring automatic fire extinguishing systems in one- and two-family homes failed to make it to a vote in the Public Safety and Security Committee.

Sen. Anthony Guglielmo, the committee's ranking Republican senator, said legislators did not have enough information about the cost to builders and municipalities that would enforce the law. Legislators will take up the issue next year only after hearing the recommendations of officials and others brought together by the state Department of Public Safety, he said.

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 townhouses less than three stories high. The regulations took effect Jan. 1.

The National Fire Protection Association has said sprinklers will particularly help young children, the elderly and the disabled by giving them time to escape burning homes.

Opponents of requiring sprinklers cite their cost — and subsequent impact on home prices — and voters' dissatisfaction with government mandates.

In Missouri, lawmakers extended for eight years rules that require builders to offer sprinklers but do not mandate them.

"Our main concern, in this housing market, is that the requirement for mandatory fire sprinklers could cost $7,000 to $15,000 per home," said Missouri state Sen. Eric Schmitt, Republican chairman of the Jobs, Economic Development and Local Government Committee. "In this market, it's very difficult to justify."

In New Hampshire, Gov. John Lynch tried to vetoed legislation that prohibited local planning boards from requiring sprinkler systems in homes as a condition of approval for local permits. The decision about whether to require fire sprinklers should remain a local one, Lynch said.

Legislators overrode the veto.

Sen. John S. Barnes, Republican chairman of the Public Municipal Affairs Committee, said the override vote was not easy because he typically favors local control. But he does not believe any government body should be ordering homeowners to install fire sprinklers.

"If I buy or build a house, I think I should decide whether I put in a sprinkler system," he said.

John A. Viniello, president of the National Fire Sprinkler Association, said the process by which codes are approved is flawed. Codes regulating wiring, construction and other facets of home construction are informed by expert advice from industry and others, he said.

But when legislatures have a role in the process, codes too often are modified or scuttled, he said.

"Once the politicians get involved, it's over," he said.