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April 07, 2004

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Publication Date: Wednesday, April 07, 2004

EDITORIAL: Cost vs. benefit of fire sprinklers EDITORIAL: Cost vs. benefit of fire sprinklers (April 07, 2004)

The complicated question of whether to require owners to install expensive sprinklers in newly built or substantially remodeled homes is scheduled to come before the Menlo Park City Council again on April 13.

The council last discussed the sprinkler requirement in January, but sent the proposed ordinance back for more study. It is returning, and while the Menlo Park Fire Protection District staff and elected board recommend approval, the council should take a hard look at the costs and benefits homeowners will receive if it is adopted. Passage of similar ordinances by Atherton and East Palo Alto, the other two cities in the fire district, makes the council's decision even more difficult.

In advancing its case, the fire district cites National Fire Protection Association data collected from 1983 to 1992 that show the number of deaths per 1,000 fires was cut by 57 percent in homes with sprinklers. Opponents say that such statistics mean little in California, or in Menlo Park specifically, where the district's own records show that, on average since 1998, only 31 fires occur per year, resulting in just 3.3 fire-related injuries.

The big question for the council, then, is whether the substantial cost to install sprinklers -- approximately $5,000 plus contractor mark-up for a new 3,000-square-foot home, and considerably more for a remodeled home of similar size -- is worth the extra margin of safety claimed by the fire district. Another big question is whether other, less expensive, fire protection devices like smoke alarms, emergency shut-off valves for gas mains and fireproof or slow-burning wallboard would give homeowners adequate protection.

A close look at Menlo Park's fire losses between 1998 and 2003 shows that in five of the years the total property loss each year averaged about $751,000, similar to the sale price of an average Menlo Park home. (The $5 million loss in 2001 of framing in the commercial- and condominium-project fire on Merrill Street is not included in this average.) The average annual content loss in Menlo Park over the five years was less than $350,000.

Given the city's already extremely low fire-loss rate, it appears that the district's prevention activities are paying off. With strong public education programs, and the wide use of fire retardant materials and smoke alarms, the likelihood of fatal and catastrophic fires is very low. So while the district has only the best of intentions in advancing its sprinkler ordinance, it is not clear if more protection is needed.

Adding sprinklers at this time will force a burden on homeowners that may not be necessary, especially on those who are remodeling on a tight budget. Installing sprinklers in an existing home, which is likely to require upgrading water lines, can be extremely costly, up to $20,000 for a 3,000-square-foot home, according to a city staff report. And at best, fire insurance rates will drop only 10 percent per year if sprinklers are installed.

Given the high cost of new home construction these days, the cost of sprinklers may add only a few percentage points to the final cost, and thus are a good value. And there is no question that new basements should include sprinkler protection -- a provision both the city and district agree on.

But the council should take a hard look at the retrofit requirement for older homes. City staff members are recommending that owners could rebuild up to 75 percent of a home of any size without triggering the requirement to install fire sprinklers. The fire district, though, recommends a 50 percent trigger on homes over 2,500 feet.

Because the 75 percent threshold is likely to exempt most remodels, the city staff has it right. Given the district's successful effort at fire prevention, owners should feel confident that a substantially remodeled home would be safe, even without sprinklers.

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