State law will require fire sprinklers in homes


After trying for several years to persuade the city of Menlo Park to adopt an ordinance requiring fire sprinklers in new and remodeled single-family residences, the Menlo Park Fire Protection district has decided to simply wait for a state law that would accomplish that goal to take effect.

The California Building Standards Commission adopted the new fire codes Jan. 12, requiring fire sprinklers in all new single-family dwellings in the state as of Jan. 1, 2011. The City Council was poised to take up the ordinance proposed by the fire district at its Jan. 26 meeting, but City Manager Glen Rojas removed the item from the agenda at the request of fire district officials.

The district's decision to stop pushing the council to adopt an ordinance represents the conclusion of several years of unsuccessful lobbying. The City Council in 2004 rejected a law that would require automatic sprinklers in new and some remodeled single-family homes, saying the potential safety improvements didn't justify the high cost to homeowners.

This time around, the fire district was planning to propose an ordinance that would only require the sprinklers in new homes, not remodels, said Fire Marshal Geoff Aus. The fire board had decided to scrap the proposition that the law apply to remodels because it was skeptical the council would approve it.

Because the new state law would accomplish the same thing as the proposed ordinance, the district decided to drop the issue, according to Mr. Aus.

In an interview, Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman said he was disappointed the city, with the help of the district, missed the chance to lead on the issue. East Palo Alto and Atherton, the other two jurisdictions within the district's boundaries, have had residential sprinkler ordinances on the books for over six years, though Atherton's does not apply to remodels.

The fire district says it will continue to work with the city to update its commercial sprinkler ordinance, which dates back to 1984. A clause necessitating sprinklers in commercial buildings is often triggered by relatively minor improvements, said Mr. Aus.

A new ordinance proposed by the district would require sprinklers only if over half the building is renovated. Menlo Park City Manager Glen Rojas said the city will "sit down with the district and figure out how best to do that, because that's definitely something we want to see changed."

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Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jan 28, 2010 at 12:32 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

The experts have now confirmed the importance of residential fire sprinklers. Changes to the Uniform Building Code do not occur easily or without a lot of input from all of the constituencies involved.

Congratulations to the Fire District, East Palo Alto and Atherton on taking a leadership position on this issue.

Residential fire sprinklers will become mandatory for new single family residences in Menlo Park - without the City Council having to make what seems to have been an unnecessarily difficult decision.

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Posted by factsplease
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jan 28, 2010 at 12:42 pm

Mr Carpenter,

re: your unattributed statement of fact "The experts have now confirmed the importance of residential fire sprinklers." Please cite your sources and ideally the expected cost per life saved. I am not challenging your accuracy, but I am always skeptical of the work of lobbyists in drafting costly regulations, and the fact that "if you repeat a lie often enough, people will believe it". This makes the cost of CA housing that much more expensive. Heaven forbid they ever pass the local law on remodels as the cost to retrofit will be astronomical, and should in my opinion, be incurred at the potential fire victims' option.

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Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jan 28, 2010 at 12:57 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

The experts are the California Building Standards Commission:

Tom Sheehy
Agency Undersecretary and Acting Agency Secretary
State and Consumer Services Agency
Isam Hasenin Local Building Official
Richard Sawhill Public Member
Steven Winkel Architect
Stephen Jensen Fire Protection Engineer
Christina Jamison Local Fire Official
Craig Daley Contractor
R. Michael Paravagna Public Member/Disabled
James Barthman Public Member
Susan Dowty Structural Engineer
Tony Hoffman Organized Labor

Not a lobbyist in the group but a lot of diverse expertise.

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Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jan 28, 2010 at 1:13 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

And here is an interesting case study with some pertinent facts:

Installing Residential Fire Sprinklers – Jungels Family – Case Study

July 24th, 2008 by Ryan J. Smith

Eric & Lil Jungels
Location: Rush City, MN
Home Type: Single Family Modular
Yr Built: 2008
Sq. Ft.: 4200
Yr Sprinklers Installed: 2008
Sprinkler Cost: $3,600

In August 2007, Eric and Lil Jungels lost everything they owned when their Rush City, MN home was destroyed in a fire (view Home Fire Loss Case Study). They chose to rebuild on the same site with the same 4,200 square foot single level floor plan with a full finished basement. However, this time they decided on two significant changes. This time, they had the house built with wood frame construction (the prior home was a modular build) and they had residential fire sprinklers installed.

The Jungels live in a rural area, several miles from the nearest town. They are protected by Rush City Fire Department, and fire sprinklers are not required by code. The house was built by Mell Construction and the fire sprinklers were installed as the house was being built. Action Automatic Fire Protection installed the system for a cost of about $3,600. With their previous total loss from a house fire, Eric and Lil desired the fire sprinklers to give them added protection and peace of mind.

Their home is insured by State Farm Insurance, who applied a discount to their policy after the fire sprinklers were installed. The original annual policy premium was $780, but with the discount Eric and Lil pay only $702 a year, saving a full 10%. Maintaining their system is very easy and inexpensive—Eric estimates that they will spend less than an hour a year taking care of it. While the insurance premium discount is a nice perk, the savings means little in comparison with the comfort that comes from knowing that their possessions are protected. Though Eric and Lil have lived in a home with fire sprinklers before, it was while living in a house that did not have sprinklers that fire struck. They experienced firsthand the heartbreak of losing all their precious family possessions. Now, with their home fully protected with residential fire sprinklers, they do not have to fear such a loss again.

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Posted by Experienced in the Field
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jan 28, 2010 at 2:48 pm

This is unfortunate, let's hope it doesn't lead to remodels and additions. Sure a case can be made for it saving a life here and there, but the benefits do not out weigh the costs. Mr. Carpenter is not familiar with actual construction coats, becasue he is not in the industry. His earlier emails indicated he conveniently left portions of an installation out when calculating the costs.

They typically run $20,000 to $30,000 per house and more in a remodel/addition.

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Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jan 28, 2010 at 2:56 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Putting my money where my mouth was, we did a fire sprinkler installation as a total retrofit in our 4000 sq ft home for less than $15,000.

There is no experience like personal experience.

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Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jan 28, 2010 at 4:33 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Real life cases:
Here is a retrofit at $1.48 a sq. ft.
Mack House
Location: Gilbert, AZ
Home Type: Single Family
Yr Built: 2007
Sq. Ft.: 2694
Yr Sprinklers Installed: 2007
Sprinkler Cost: $4000*

In 2007, Travis Mack decided to have his new Gilbert, Arizona, home built with residential fire sprinklers. Travis reasons, “I work in the fire sprinkler industry and feel that it is appropriate that I practice what I preach. I also work from home and want the protection for my business as well as the piece of mind it provides for me in knowing that my family would be safe in the event of a fire. We have a young child and pets that I want protected in times of fire should it ever happen.”

The house is a 2694 square foot, one story single family dwelling. Although Travis intended the house to be built with sprinklers from the beginning, the builder would not allow the sprinkler installation to take place during the home’s construction. Travis notes, “I live in a single story home with a large attic, so I knew that it could be retrofitted relatively easy. However, if this was a 2 story, I would have taken this fight to the local building official to let me have fire sprinklers if needed.” Travis chose to retrofit the home with a fire sprinkler system immediately after taking possession of the home from the builder.

As a professional fire sprinkler system designer, Travis designed the system himself. One of his business clients, Wicked Fire Protection of Flagstaff, AZ, agreed to perform the installation at cost. *This resulted in the entire home fire sprinkler retrofit only costing $4000 or $1.48 a sq. ft.

Mack Concealed Head
Concealed fire sprinkler head inside the home.

The home insurer is Ameriprise, and at this time, Travis does not receive a discount for having fire sprinklers. He indicates, “We have not had any monetary benefits as far as insurance premium reduction because we are max’d out already. We have deductions for a new home, smoke detectors, central alarm and a few others. The fire sprinkler discount will kick in at year 5. The benefit is that we will be able to keep our current “lower” premium for years to come because as current deductions phase out, the fire sprinkler deduction will cover those.”

Maintenance has not been an issue for Travis. The system is only about 6 months old. He has not had any problems, and currently, he is estimating that maintaining the system will cost less than $100 per year.

Travis feels that his residential fire sprinklers provide peace of mind that nothing else could give. In his words, “I have a greater piece of mind knowing that my home is safe when we are around or away. Our fire sprinkler system is tied to a central monitoring station so that even if a fire occurs and we are not home, the local fire department will respond and deal with the issue. Also, having small children at home, it is always nice to know that should a fire occur, we will be able to get out of the house safely.”

2 people like this
Posted by Mike Lambert
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jan 28, 2010 at 6:58 pm

Peter, thank you for providing your costs in a public forum for the installation of fire sprinklers in your house. If I did the math, your cost per sq. ft. would be about $3.75 ($15000 / 4000). That is significantly higher that the $1.50 per square foot that I recall hearing from the Fire District over the past few years. Your costs are pretty consistent with the numbers I received from a number of fire sprinkler subcontractors when I requested bids for my house. Are you served by California Water Service, and if so, did you have to install a larger meter, (larger meters come at an additional monthly cost)?

For those other readers, I and a few others were the ones who attended all the public hearings at the Menlo Park City Council and were the ones who continued to question why the Fire District wanted the local ordinance that would require fire sprinklers in single family homes. Why did we do it? Initially there were a number of red flags that jumped on this issue. The first was the organizations were lobbying to require fire sprinklers in single family homes, “follow the money,”? Answer… the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition, a organization largely sponsored by the fire sprinkler industry and contractor organizations. Second, in my experience as an architect, there were some very understandable reasons why fire sprinkler systems were required in the majority of commercial and multi-residential projects that I have managed. But none of those reasons normally applied to single-family dwellings.

At the last series of Menlo Park city council study sessions, I prepared a very detailed response and history of this local issue. Copies, which I suppose are now a public record, were provided to the City Council, the City Manager and to the Fire District. I have to think that our efforts and that document probably had a lot to do with why the city held off with enacting a local ordinance.

The issue is now over, and with the adoption of the next edition of the California Building Code and Fire Code, probably no later than January 1, 2011, fire sprinklers will now be required in all new single-family residential construction. After all of my research, I continue to feel that given the occurrence of fires in single-family homes, there are better, more cost effective measures to provide added fire safety to the single-family dwelling.

Peter you did a great job as a member of the Fire District board, thank you. There were positions on many issues that I thoroughly agreed with you on. The one exception was on the requirement for fire sprinklers in single-family dwellings.

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Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jan 28, 2010 at 9:19 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Mike - Thank your for your thoughtful comment. We disagreed on this issue but have always done so respectfully.

My cost was for a retrofit not part of a remodel - the most expensive type of installation and yes we did need to go to a larger water service. The $1.50 sq ft is consistent with the cost of fire sprinklers in new construction, as in the Jungles case study above.

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Posted by Apples to apples
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jan 29, 2010 at 12:34 am

Peter if I remember correctly you have been a fireman or on the district bd. Sorry I can't believe the costs you would have incurred were retail considering all your connections with the industry. Also comparing the cost of a system installed in AZ to one being doing in Menlo Park is absurd considering how much higher labor costs are here and the figures were for 2007 not 2010.

2 people like this
Posted by Satire
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jan 29, 2010 at 6:00 am

Single family residence sprinklers are an example of Big Government over-stepping its role in our lives. The discussion (over numerous threads in this forum) has surfaced many relevant facts regarding the initial and ongoing expense of such systems. No need to re-hash them here. The opportunity for discussion has passed.

More disappointing is the bait and switch nature of the opportunity for public discourse. The Council and Fire Department scheduled such a time, rescheduled the time, and ultimately canceled it altogether. Why?

Well, because the opportunity to object was actually in Sacramento, not Menlo Park. Was that publicized? Probably. But, one would have to dig in order to find it.

In the end, feel good policies win out over pragmatic analysis.

California becomes a little less attractive as a place to live and create opportunity. The fire industrial complex is strengthened. And, Joe Citizen gets pushed a little further away from realizing the American Dream.

Congratulations to everyone.

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Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jan 29, 2010 at 6:49 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

There was no bait and switch here on public disclosure:

This was posted last year:

Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of the Atherton: Lindenwood neighborhood, on Dec 29, 2009 at 8:19 pm
Peter Carpenter is a member (registered user) of Almanac

And this is what the experts have already decided:

"In September 2008, the International Code Council (ICC) published the 2009 International Residential Code, which includes a requirement for fire sprinklers in all new one- and two-family homes beginning Jan. 1, 2011, as well as in all new townhomes when the code is adopted.

The approval of the residential fire sprinkler code came after much debate and work to form a consensus among stakeholders."

2 people like this
Posted by POGO
a resident of Woodside: other
on Jan 29, 2010 at 11:39 am

Mike Lambert is exactly right.

The number of civilian deaths in single family residential fires is extraordinarily low. The cost of installing fire sprinklers, especially when it is REQUIRED as part of an unrelated remodeling project, is extraordinarily high.

Smoke detectors, for just 1,000th of the price, are almost as effective as sprinklers in saving lives. But that's California government for you. Then they'll all squalk when remodeling jobs fall and the associated tax revenues and building spending falls with it.

And pretty soon, our Big Brother government will make us install portable cardio defibrillators when you remodel your bathroom because people do go into cardiac arrest at home at will save lives. Actually, more people die of cardiac arrest - by far! - than in residential fires and defibrillators cost a fraction of the price of sprinklers. Please don't tell this to our elected officials!

Can anyone say cost-benefit????

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Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jan 29, 2010 at 12:17 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

POGO - home defibrillators - that is a great idea. I already have one and it actually costs more to maintain than does my sprinkler system.

However, I agree with you that they should not be mandated in homes.

I suggest we let this thread die a natural death with thanks to all who have contributed.

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Posted by POGO
a resident of Woodside: other
on Jan 29, 2010 at 1:47 pm

You may be insufferable, Peter, but you are an intellectually honest voice.

PS - You're about 1,000 times more likely to save a life with your $2,000 defibrillator than with those $15,000 sprinklers.

Like this comment
Posted by guest
a resident of another community
on Jan 30, 2010 at 1:17 pm

There are many better places to spend money to save lives in this state then residential sprinklers. For example roads where people are dying that the state and cities do not want to fix.

With regard to the economics. The undisputed numbers above show that when comparing lowest cost estimates for sprinklers verses insurance savings, there is no cost savings. The interest cost on the sprinklers are at a minimum 200% of the insurance savings. A complete and utter looser.

This is yet another example of the incompetence coming from Sacramento.

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Posted by Resident X
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Feb 3, 2010 at 11:59 am

Re: cost benefit

Since our already low incidence of single-family fires would be expected to drop significantly with sprinklers, will we be able to reduce the number of firefighters and therefore cost? My bet is that the union and their sacred-cow status will prevent that. All due respect to our firefighters who risk their lives for us, I just would expect we would need fewer of them.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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