Can various incentives help all parties involved to truly work together?

The ICC code change deadline has come and gone. Again, one of the hottest topics will be residential sprinkler systems.

Unlike last year, this year the sprinkler industry, fire inspectors, building industry professionals and home builders tried to work together for the betterment of the code. That is not to say that they sat around the camp fire singing “Kumbaya.” There are still significant differences between the home builders and the sprinkler/building industry.

The home builders do not want sprinklers mandated for single-family dwellings and townhouses. A large segment of the sprinkler/fire/building industry do want sprinklers mandated in the code. They have again proposed such a change.

While the two groups seem diametrically opposed to one another, there are some neutral grounds on which they can work together. One of the more significant changes will be a proposal that would provide sprinkler incentives. These are often called “tradeoffs”; however, the term tradeoff has negative connotations.

Alternative Design Options

The idea behind the incentives is to provide alternative design options that will save money. The money saved will more than pay for the sprinkler installation.

Currently, townhouses are required to have two-hour fire separation assemblies between units when it is a common wall. The sprinkler incentive package will lower the rating to one hour when fully sprinklered. Keep in mind that the sprinkler system that would be required is an NFPA 13D system. Traditionally, NFPA 13D systems have been the lowest-cost sprinkler systems to install.

Other incentives include reducing the separation distance to a lot line, reducing the number of smoke detectors required and eliminating the requirement for an egress window in each bedroom. All of these incentives will save money without compromising life safety.

The other major change that all parties seemed to agree on was the development of prescriptive code text to regulate the design and installation of residential sprinklers. To date, all code changes and proposals have relied upon a reference to NFPA 13D. The homebuilders argued that the International Residential Code (IRC) was intended to be a stand alone prescriptive code. If sprinklers were to be addressed, the requirements for the installation should appear in the body of the code.

At first glance, it would appear that this would offend NFPA by ignoring their standard. However, that is not how the code changes are written.

The intent of the various code changes is to provide specific requirements for multipurpose piping systems in the IRC. A multipurpose piping system is a sprinkler system where the sprinkler piping and cold water distribution piping are one and the same. This type of system is installed by the plumbing contractor as part of a plumbing system.

The other option for a residential sprinkler system is a stand-alone, independent piping system. A stand-alone system is typically installed by a sprinkler contractor.

The code changes will reference NFPA 13D for stand-alone systems, the thought process being that sprinkler contractors are already familiar with NFPA 13D. Thus, there is no need to have prescriptive requirements in the code.

The prescriptive requirements include information on the location and sizing of sprinklers. The sprinkler placement within a dwelling unit is identical to NFPA requirements. For sizing, there are a series of sizing tables for a contractor to use.

The sizing tables are based on using 3/4- and 1-inch-pipe throughout a dwelling unit. The sizing has allowances for 3/4- through 1-1/4-inch water service. Each sizing table identifies the maximum distance from the inlet of the water supply to the last sprinkler.

Sizing Tables

Similar to NFPA 13D, the sizing tables have provisions for the discharge of one or two sprinklers in a room or space. The tables are for the use of copper tubing, CPVC pipe and PEX tubing. These are the three most common materials used in residential sprinkler systems.

While the prescriptive requirements would provide information on sizing, the methods provided are conservative when compared to NFPA 13D. The code changes will allow a contractor to use NFPA 13D rather than the prescriptive requirements.

The difference between the sprinkler/fire/building industry change and the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) change is that the sprinkler/fire/building industry proposes the change to the plumbing section in the body of the IRC. The NAHB change proposes the requirements to the appendix of the code. Neither change has any requirements for mandating residential sprinklers. The change merely provides text regulating the installation, should someone chose to install sprinklers.

The final change that the two groups will probably never agree on is the mandating of residential sprinklers. There are a number of organizations that have submitted code changes to mandate residential sprinklers. Those groups include the IRC Residential Sprinkler Coalition, various fire marshall and fire chief associations and the American Society of Plumbing Engineers. The last group is soliciting other engineering and contractor associations to co-sponsor their code change.

Both sides are aligning their support for or against this code change. Nobody expects surprises in the issues. The home builders oppose residential because of increased cost of construction and the desire for local control over the issue.

Those supporting sprinklers will identify the life safety aspects of residential sprinklers. They also will contend that residential sprinklers do not impact the final cost of a home to a home buyer. It is estimated that 3,000 people lose their lives in residential fires every year.

There are some who would like to see sprinklers mandated in townhouses, but not detached one- and two-family dwellings. The concept is to allow an individual homeowner to make their own decision regarding sprinkler protection. However, it is always pointed out that home builders never offer the option of residential sprinklers. The only way that they will be provided is by mandating sprinklers.

It should be an interesting time at the code change hearings. The first hearing will be held in Palm Springs, CA, from Feb. 18 to March 2, 2008. The final hearing, which will result in the 2009 editions of the International Codes, will be in Minneapolis, MN, in Sept. 2008.