An historic first takes place as ICC members vote overwhelmingly in favor of sprinklers for the 2009 International Residential Code.

The International Code Council held their Annual Meeting in Minnesota the third week of September. Due to the large volume of code changes, the meeting lasted 10 days.

From the start of registration to the final code change, the buzz was all about residential sprinklers. After losing the code change during the last cycle by a handful of votes, everyone was gearing up for the battle in Minneapolis. Both sides were working the voting members to garner support of their position.

While you might imagine that the discussion leading up to the floor testimony would get nasty, it was not. To the contrary, both the sprinkler supporters and the home builders opposed to sprinklers acted in the most professional manor. Both sides like one another, they just disagree on the issue. Most of the discussion was technically based. Everyone attempted to put aside their emotions until the floor discussion.

Swing Vote

The key to the vote rested with the group everyone calls the moderates. These are the building officials that weigh both sides and cast a vote based on the discussion at the hearings. The fire service side of the profession clearly supported the mandate of residential sprinklers. The plumbing and mechanical side also appeared to be strongly in support of sprinklers. It was the moderate building officials that were going to have the final say.

Prior to the hearings, many building officials that were previously lukewarm to ambivalent regarding the code change were openly supporting the mandate of residential sprinklers. Even those opposed to residential sprinklers were admitting that they expected the code change to pass.

The strange schedule for the code change hearing resulted in the IRC changes being considered on a Sunday. The crowd during Sunday hearings is normally smaller than the other days of the week, but not this year. It appeared that there were more than 2,000 people in the room when the residential sprinkler code changes were called to the floor.

The Code Change Committee recommended denial of the residential sprinkler code change. Based on the procedures, the opponents of mandating residential sprinklers were the first to testify.

The testimony by the opponents was not new. Affordable housing was one of the mainstays in their arguments against sprinklers. Those opposed to sprinklers also pointed out the safety aspects of newer homes. They claimed that the fire deaths were associated with older homes, not ones built to the current International Residential Code.

When the proponents of sprinklers had their chance to testify, there was technical information peppered with emotional pleas. The life safety aspect of a residential sprinkler system is impeccable. Nobody can challenge the performance of these systems.

The proponents went on to discuss the minimal cost to install the systems and the fact that the cost of installation does not have a major impact on the final cost of the home. It was pointed out that the cost of a home is based on what the market will bear.

Countering the opponent view that modern homes are safer, the proponents pointed out that, in fact, modern homes are not as safeduring a fire. With the increased use of engineered wood joist systems, the floor system does not remain in place during a fire like solid wood joists. One firefighter pointed out that a partner was killed in a recent fire after falling through a floor that had a wood joist system.

Other stories of lost family members were presented to the voting membership. It was heart-rendering to see and hear the people who lost family members in residential fires. Reading the statistics is one thing, hearing a person relate their account of losing a loved one puts a face to the statistics.

Yes or No

After the long testimony from both sides, the ICC membership used electronic voting devices to vote for or against the code change. In order to be approved, the code change needed a two-thirds favorable vote. The much-anticipated vote overwhelmingly supported the mandate of residential sprinklers. Approximately 73% of members vote for it, easily surpassing the required two-thirds. History was made in the IRC!

The result of this code change means that residential sprinklers will be mandated for all residential buildings in the 2009 International Residential Code. (They are already mandated for all residential buildings in the International Building Code.) There is a delay provision in the requirements that lists the implementation date as Jan. 1, 2011. This is to allow local areas to educate contractors, designers, builders, and code officials on residential sprinklers.

Another code change to the plumbing section of the IRC placed sprinkler design and sizing requirements in the body of the code. The new section parallels the requirements in NFPA 13D. The section also references NFPA 13D as an option for the design and installation requirements.

These sprinkler requirements were actually developed by the sprinkler coalition and the National Association of Home Builders. The two sides readily agreed on the technical requirements for a system design and installation. The purpose of adding this new section was so that a home can be constructed by using the International Residential Code without the need for referencing or using another document.

Now that the technical minds of ICC have spoken, the battle switches to the states and local jurisdictions. No one expects the state homebuilder groups to allow the mandate of residential sprinklers without a fight.

When the code is published in March of 2009, certain states will jump on the adoption of the new code. Other states will wait to see what happens around the country. The next few years should be interesting to see what states adopt the code.

I predict that within the next five years, the homebuilders’ literature will promote residential sprinklers and the benefits of the sprinklers. They will encourage people to buy new homes that are much safer since they are protected by residential sprinklers. It will be easy for the homebuilders to turn their negative opinion into a major positive to increase the sale of new homes.