The buzz at the International Code Council (ICC) Code Change Hearings in Palm Springs, CA,  was all about residential sprinklers. Since the Rochester, NY, hearings last May - where mandating residential sprinklers in all one- and two-family dwellings and townhouses received majority approval, but not a super majority of  two-thirds to be included in the code - everyone has been wondering if this is the year.

There were a series of code change proposals up for discussion. The proponents asked for the hearing order to be rearranged so that the first group of changes would be incentive packages, followed by townhouse requirements, followed by one- and two-family dwelling mandates.

The incentive package would provide design alternatives if a builder installed residential sprinklers in townhouses or one- and two-family dwellings. Design alternatives have been used for many years in the Building Code; however, they have never appeared in the Residential Code. Some of the incentives included: reducing the dwelling unit separation from a 2-hour rated wall to a 1-hour, eliminating the egress window and reducing building setbacks.

Seismic Incentives
Once you introduce incentive packages, you see many different groups get up and argue against the points. All of the industries that want more passive fire protection always oppose sprinkler incentives. They argued that after a long fire, a two-hour wall would remain, yet a one-hour wall would disappear. Of course, they base this discussion on the sprinkler system failing. That is the only way they can make any of their points.

What surprised many was when certain individuals raised concerns about earthquakes and the fact that water would be shut off for weeks. I thought about how many earthquakes occur in the United States, and that we would eliminate incentives based on these few occurrences. Think of the last time that happened.

Anytime there is a major incentive package, you end up arguing individual points. In the Building Code, every incentive was added one by one. Sometimes this is easier to do just to avoid the massive protest. All of the proposed incentive code changes were recommended for denial. This seemed to infuriate a number of Building Officials in the audience.

The next change was the townhouse incentive package, which also mandated residential sprinklers for all townhouses. Again, the incentives were attached, and the change was recommended for denial.

With all the incentives denied, it didn’t look good for any of the changes that mandated residential sprinklers. The first discussion was on townhouses. Of course, the four homebuilders’ representatives on the Code Change Committee opposed mandating any sprinklers. This meant that the code change would have to receive six of the remaining eight votes on the committee.

When the vote was taken, the change lost by a vote of six to four, with one member missing and the Chair not voting. One of the ardent supporters of residential sprinklers voted against the change because the incentives were not approved. He had to be admired for standing up for his principles during the heated battle.

The membership was none too pleased with the vote, and someone rose to make a floor motion. The ICC process allows a floor consideration that is purely symbolic to take place during the first hearings. All the floor vote indicates is that there is an automatic public comment to oppose the decision of the committee. Of course, anyone can submit such a comment prior to the deadline and accomplish the same goal.

The floor vote received a majority, with an automatic public comment opposing the committee vote. It will still require  two-thirds majority at the Annual Meeting to gain approval. If the committee had voted in favor of the code change, it would only require a simple majority at the Annual Meeting.

Most thought that, after the committee voted, it would be futile to discuss the remaining code changes that would mandate residential sprinklers in all residential buildings, townhouses and one- and two-family dwellings. However, those opposed to residential sprinklers seemed to want their say. As a result, those supporting mandatory sprinklers presented the issues as to why sprinklers should be mandated.

Say What?

There are times during the code change process that you shake your head and ask if people are really testifying the way they are. It is tough to make your points since you are strictly limited by time;  two minutes of initial testimony and  one minute of rebuttal. But you still wonder if the person testifying heard what they were saying.

The comments that drove me crazy were the testimony that affordability in residential construction can include a minimum number of deaths on an annual basis and that the Code cannot prevent all deaths in a home.

Many pointed to the fact that the Code requires housing to be affordable. Of course, that is a term that is subject to debate, depending on where you live.

The bottom line is that the minimum number of deaths that are acceptable are 3,000 per year on average. The week prior to the hearings, a 13-year-old honor student in a neighboring town lost his life in a fire of his single-family dwelling. My question during the testimony was, “Did the code protect that 13-year-old boy. Isn’t that the Code’s job?”

I often wonder who tells the families of those who died in a fire of a residential building that their loved one’s death was an acceptable statistic to keep housing affordable. As one person testified during the hearings, you can sprinkler any townhouse or one- and two-family dwelling for less than the cost of a premium cup of coffee every month (for thirty years assuming the additional cost on the mortgage).

All of the code changes mandating residential sprinklers were recommended for denial.

The remaining sprinkler code changes went to a different committee. There were two changes to the plumbing section of the Residential Code. The changes would add regulations for the installation of residential sprinklers. The difference being that neither one of these changes would mandate sprinklers.

Simply stated, if sprinklers were to be installed, the text would regulate their installation. Furthermore, the section would allow any plumbing contractor the opportunity to design the residential sprinkler system without the need of an engineer.

The debate with these changes was not whether to add the requirements; it was whether to add them to the appendix or to the body of the code. The testimony supported the inclusion of the requirements; it was simply a matter of where.

The first change to include the requirements in the body of the code was recommended for approval. What followed surprised many, including myself, when the committee voted to approve the inclusion of the requirements in the appendix.

The committee’s justification did make sense, even if the decision seemed strange. Their concern was that many states delete the plumbing requirements when they adopt the Residential Code. By having the requirements in the appendix, they would still be available for use within a jurisdiction.

The ICC Annual Meeting in Minneapolis will be the deciding grounds for whether residential sprinklers are mandated in the International Residential Code. It looks to be an interesting meeting this September.