Sprinkler Systems: Their Merit and Controversy

by : Joe Samson

The issue of mandatory installment of sprinklers in homes and apartment buildings is not a simple one. One side argues that sprinklers save lives, as undoubtedly they do. Yet another side cites the extreme property damage that can result when sprinklers are detonated during a false alarm, and, more importantly, that sprinkler systems are just too expensive. So what's a lawmaker or builder to do?

The recent death by fire of an Ontario man has the province set to implement a requirement that all new apartment buildings have a sprinkler system. A similar proposal was recently rejected by officials in Alberta.

It has been estimated that the cost of adding a sprinkler system increases the price by about 1.5 percent in a home, and it is probably around the same for an apartment building, though perhaps less as all the units systems are interconnected. The requirement will not extend to new homes, at least not for now, and builders appear to be sighing in relief at not having to put out the extra money. Nor are the mandatory sprinklers going to be installed in older buildings. It is this point that has some critics "burning up", considering that older homes have greater risk of burning than newer homes built using up-to-date fire safe materials. Money seems to be the main issue here, as installing sprinklers in existing homes is even more expensive than making them a part of the infrastructure of new homes and buildings.

Sean Tracey, National Fire Protection Association's Canadian spokesman expressed concern that not enough measures are being taken to ensure our safety at home, where we may be most vulnerable to fire. Sprinkler systems are already mandatory in work places such as office buildings. However, evidence shows that buyers aren't concerned with having sprinkler systems in their homes, and often don't choose this option when it is offered by builders, at an extra cost of course.

To complicate matters, there are two different systems for sprinklers, wet or dry. In a wet system, each sprinkler's pipe is full of water, and only the sprinklers detecting a fire will go off, not all of the sprinklers in the building. In a dry system, water is not in the pipe directly attached to the sprinkler, but is held back at its source by a compressor or some similar system. This latter system is more expensive, and the compressors require a battery to maintain continual power. These dry systems can be safer in terms of preventing unnecessary water damage, as water isn't as close to the surface and waiting to come out. However they require far more maintenance to ensure they are functioning correctly.

The cost and feasibility of installing sprinkler systems is further complicated by building design and climate. Imagine having pipes associated with a wet sprinkler system in your unheated attic over winter. The threat of accidental water damage due to frozen and bursting pipes would loom overhead at all times. Insulating pipes only adds to the cost of sprinkler installation. And installing pipes in the interior walls and ceiling area is only feasible with certain designs.

From my research it appears to be very rare that sprinkler accidents occur, creating water damage without there having been a fire. Other than the freezing pipes threat, sprinkler systems are well designed to avoid discharging without being either exposed to fire or damaged mechanically through physical force. That said, accidents do happen. Compounding this is that few people know how to turn their systems off, nor are they legally allowed to in the case of a fire. This means that it has happened that a very minimal fire has lead to a lot of water damage while the home or building owner waiting for the fire department to turn off the sprinkler system.

So essentially, it is a reluctance to spend money that factors into builders and homeowners not wanting mandatory sprinkler regulations. However, given the record of their performance, it appears that sprinklers have saved a lot of lives and prevented more property damage than they have caused. It is like insurance. You pay now for protection from something that may or may not happen. In any case, it looks like sprinkler systems will only be installed in new, and older, homes at the owners request, at least for the time being.