Residential Fire Sprinklers

Who should install the fire sprinkler, and what type of training should they have? 

I am always saddened when a news story is reported that someone has lost his or her life in a house fire. Most of the time the victim turns out to be a child. The remaining survivors need to find shelter until the home can be repaired or rebuilt. All of their personal belongings have been destroyed. 

Unfortunately, this story is reported on the news too often. Nearly 3,000 people die in home fires each year. I am sure most of the television audience is also saddened by the report but unless you are directly connected to the victims, you move on with your life and the sun rises another day. To me, it is upsetting knowing that the frequency of these stories can be greatly reduced, lives can be saved, and families do not have to be displaced from their homes for long periods of time. Surprisingly, some people feel proven lifesaving sprinkler systems are not worth the extra costs of building a house. 

I guess the bottom line question is: how much is your family worth to you?

In 1973, the National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control published the report “America Burning.” The intent was to focus national attention on the residential fire problem. The report indicated that residential fires caused the majority of fire deaths in this nation. The report also provided recommendations to solve this ongoing crisis. A major recommendation was to develop a cost effective residential sprinkler system. The National Fire Prevention Association (NFPA) did just that. In 1975 the first addition of the NFPA 13D system was adopted. It emphasized life safety as the primary goal. 

Property protection was secondary. One of the burdens was to ensure that this system would not be cost prohibitive while still providing life safety protection. One method was to combine the sprinklers with the plumbing system. Another was to omit sprinklers in areas of low fire incidents. In 1980, a complete revision to the NFPA 13D was completed. The revision was based on research and a better understanding of residential fires. The new “residential sprinkler” classification was included. Since then, new additions have been published, each one providing better information while taking into account new technologies and building designs. The NFPA 13D residential fire sprinkler systems improve the opportunity for the family to escape a fire, thus saving lives.

In 2000, the “America Burning” committee was recommissioned. After several meetings, a report was drafted. While fire deaths have fallen from 7,395 in 1977 to 4,035 in 1998, the number is still unacceptable. Also unacceptable is the 100 firefighter deaths. The report states that the ways to reduce fire losses and deaths are neither unknown nor arcane. The primary goal is to prevent fires. Smoke detectors have proven effective in alarming occupants, and sprinkler systems are the most effective method of fighting the fires.  

Very few jurisdictions have required residential sprinklers. Of the few jurisdictions, which have required residential sprinklers is Scottsdale, Ariz. A ten-year study was based on the Scottsdale results. The average fire loss per sprinklered incident was $1,945, compared to an unsprinklered loss of $17,067. Sprinkler systems had a direct role in saving eight lives. Sprinklers controlled or even extinguished the fire 92 percent of the time. Zero fire deaths in sprinklered homes while ten people lost their lives in non-sprinklered homes. The Scottsdale report also illustrates how sprinklered homes can actually provide the site developer added benefits along with cost savings. 

Fast forward to 2016, residential fire sprinkler systems remain a controversial topic of discussion. Movements have been made for their adoption. Some smaller areas are mandating sprinklers while many other areas are providing language for the option of installing a sprinkler system. Why is this so important? The reason is simple. Today, more than 80 percent of all fire deaths occur in the home. It seems strange to me that we live in a highly advanced society, and we still allow this kind of devastation and death to occur, especially when there is a proven solution. 

Technology has made progress in limiting residential fire deaths. Heat source equipment such as irons have automatic shut-offs. Fabrics have become more fire-resistant. All of this is great progress, but there is one variable that technological advances cannot account for, and that is human error. Cooking remains the number one cause for residential fires. Smoking accounts for the number one cause for fire deaths. Working smoke alarms and a residential fire sprinkler system can be the solution to the deadly problem. 

NFPA 13D is the standard to which these systems need to be installed. One issue that the industry and jurisdictions face is who installs residential fire sprinklers. NFPA 13D really addresses two types of residential installations. One is the conventional stand-alone system; the other is a multi-purpose system, which combines the sprinkler system and the plumbing domestic water supply system.

In my experience, most stand-alone systems are installed by sprinkler fitters who have successfully completed a recognized apprenticeship program. Sprinkler fitters are experts in the fire sprinkler industry. The stand-alone system provides the very best in fire protection. Some of the benefits include flow alarms to let people know the system has activated and can respond, and the use of antifreeze which allows more design freedom. Where antifreeze systems are installed, the proper use of backflow protection will be required. 

The multi-purpose system falls more under the NFPA 13D task of being cost-competitive. The cost saving benefits includes, no required backflow protection, flow alarms or duplicate piping. Since the multi-purpose system is combined with the domestic water supply, antifreeze is not used. 

The same piping which supplies the kitchen or a bathroom also supplies the sprinklers, which reduce the amount of piping. The multi-purpose system cannot be “accidentally” shut off. If your faucets run water and your toilet flushes, then you know your sprinkles will also work. The controversial issue with multi-purpose systems is who does the installation and inspection. In many cases they are allowing the plumbers to install and inspect the system. 

I will not get involved in that decision process. That decision is up to the authorities having jurisdiction. I will get involved if the systems are allowed to be installed or inspected by the plumbers. My background is in the plumbing industry. I served an apprenticeship, was involved in training and was involved nationally on the United Association plumbing apprentice curriculum. There is not sufficient training for a plumber, who has served a plumbing apprenticeship, to install or inspect multi-purpose residential fire sprinkler systems. That should be a concern with local jurisdictions when deciding who can perform the work.

ASSE International recognized this concern and began development of a professional qualification standard to address the industry needs. Using the open consensus ANSI process, ASSE International drafted the ANSI approved ASSE/IAPMO/ANSI Series 7000 – Residential Potable Water Fire Protection System Installers & Inspectors for One and Two Family Dwellings. The Series 7000 was revised and approved in 2013 in order to meet the changing industry needs. ASSE International also formed a Series 7000 technical committee, which developed the guidelines for certification. 

The ASSE International staff distributes program materials, processes applications, maintains records, grades the exams, issues certificates and administers the re-certification process. The technical committee is responsible for the development of a pool of exam questions, validating the exams, keeping exams questions current, and reviewing the guidelines and certification requirements to ensure they meet industry needs. The ASSE International Series 7000 professional qualification standard and certification program is a complete package. When adopted, the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) will have a third party, independent, industry-approved program, which alleviates the AHJ from many administrative duties. 

A person must have at least five years of practical experience in the installation of plumbing and/or sprinkler systems before they can qualify to take the training to become certified as an installer. The person must then successfully complete a minimum of 40 hours of ASSE-approved instruction and pass a 100-question proctored written exam with a score of 70 percent or higher. The person must also pass with a score of 70 percent or higher, a practical sprinkler location and sizing exam. The inspector must have at least five years of practical experience in the inspection, installation or design of plumbing, piping and/or sprinkler systems. The person must then successfully complete a minimum of 24 hours of ASSE approved instruction and pass a 50-question proctored exam with a score of 70 percent or higher. The person must also pass, with a score of 70 percent or higher, a practical verification of sprinkler locations and sizing exam. Both certifications shall be valid for three years at which time the person would successfully complete a minimum 8-hour review course and pass a 25-question exam. 

A person who has successfully completed the certification will have knowledge of approved residential sprinklers, installation methods, approved locations, sprinkler specifications, regulations and codes, industry terminology, basic fire knowledge, sizing, safety and NFPA 13D. 
I have been involved in residential fire sprinkler training since 2000. Over this time, advanced technology has improved the residential sprinkler industry. Sprinklers options have improved, hangers are more structurally friendly, materials have been tested and approved for a broader application, NFPA 13D –  2013 has also became a more detailed standard than the previous ones. Better direction is provided for common structural areas such as ceiling slopes, ceiling pockets, and heating equipment storage closets. The 2013 NPA 13D now includes shadow areas. A shadow area is an area, which is not covered by a sprinkler. A small percentage of a compartment is allowed to have a shadow area. In previous NFPA 13D versions, this was not allowed which made layout very difficult.

In summary, it is sad and even upsetting that in today’s society we allow death and destruction where it can be avoided. Those opposed to residential fire sprinkler systems will point out the cost and added time to the construction of a house.

 I have designed and installed two systems using the multi-purpose system. Being a plumber, I am already installing water lines throughout the house and the additional sprinklers add minimal time. The cost varies depending on the type of materials and sprinklers used. Studies have shown that the sprinkler system adds 1.5 percent to 2 percent to the overall cost of construction. When one spreads that cost out over a 30-year mortgage, the cost is minimal. 

How much is your family worth? At the very least, I would hope that all jurisdictions would adopt language, which would allow the option of residential sprinkler systems. I would also strongly suggest that jurisdictions adopt the ASSE 7000 certification for installers and inspectors. The ASSE 7000 is an industry-approved third party certification, which will perform all of the administrative requirements. 

It’s time we come together and stop this deadly problem. Residential sprinkler systems, smoke detectors and the ASSE Series 7000 is the total package for all jurisdictions. If you would like more information or have any questions, please contact ASSE International.

This article was originally published in the April 2014 issue of BPPS magazine. 

Scott Hamilton is the executive director of ASSE International. A 25-year veteran of the trades, Hamilton joined ASSE International after serving the previous 14 years as president of Plumbers Union Local 75 in Milwaukee, for which he also served as training director of the Educational Fund since 2004. A graduate of the University of Wisconsin, Whitewater, Hamilton completed the united Association’s Instructor Training program and has been teaching for 20 years. 

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