Last month, I visited an environmentally friendly house under construction in Montana that was equipped with fire sprinklers.

Bob Miodonski

Last month, I visited an environmentally friendly house under construction in Montana, and I was heartened to see the home equipped with fire sprinklers. Less encouraging were reports from local residents that municipalities in the area had postponed or waived the 2009 International Residential Code mandate that would have required sprinklers in new single-family homes.

Builders successfully lobbied authorities with arguments that the recession had done plenty to harm their industry without the added financial burden of mandatory fire sprinklers. While I don’t buy this argument, it has been persuasive in Montana and other parts of the country where sprinklers have been put on hold, at least until the economy improves.

You might think the owners of an environmentally conscious home would be interested in sprinklers primarily because they save water compared to having to fight a fire when it’s out of control. Indeed, results from a 2011 Fire Protection Research Foundation ( project show that in all scenarios studied, the water used during a fire when a building has a sprinkler system is less than that of an unsprinklered building.

The Montana property owners, however, mostly want the peace of mind that fire sprinklers provide. The National Fire Protection Association in March released another study that addresses safety among other issues.

NFPA’s “U.S. Experience with Sprinklers” reports that fire departments in 2010 responded to 369,500 home structural fires. These fires caused 2,640 civilian deaths, 13,350 civilian injuries and $6.9 billion in direct property damage. More than 90% of civilian structure fire deaths that year resulted from home fires.

From 2006 to 2010, the death rate per fire declined in sprinklered homes by 83% compared to homes without sprinklers, NFPA notes.

Fire sprinklers also reduce the property damage that results from fire. Between 2005 and 2009, direct property damage from fire dropped by 69% when residential fire sprinklers were installed - $6,000 with wet-pipe fire sprinkler systems compared to $20,000 in homes with no sprinklers.

As for affordability, a national 2008 report from the Fire Protection Research Foundation states the average cost to builders to install NFPA 13D sprinkler systems in new homes was $1.61 per sprinklered square foot. Reduced labor costs and incentives from municipalities make fire sprinklers more affordable as well.

The Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition notes that an installed fire sprinkler system is paid for over the life of a mortgage, just as are the home’s plumbing and electrical systems.

A national poll conducted by Harris Interactive finds that 69% of U.S. homeowners say having a fire sprinkler system increases a home’s value. As an incentive for customers, insurance companies now offer discounts ranging from 5% to 25% off the fire portion of homeowner premiums.

Some progress is being made. NFPA’s March study states that 4.6% of occupied homes (including apartments) had sprinklers in 2009, up from 3.9% in 2007, and 18.5% of occupied homes built in the previous four years had sprinklers.

Unfortunately, the study notes, sprinklers are still rare in most of the places where people are most exposed to fire, including educational properties, stores, offices, public assembly venues and especially homes, where most fire deaths occur. The upside is all the potential for the expanded use of sprinklers to reduce the loss of life and property to fire.

Authorities who delay the installation of fire sprinklers in residential construction need to consider all the data available to them. Sprinklers make sense from both safety and economic perspectives.