Legislatures in at least 11 states are considering bills that, if passed, would prevent the application and enforcement of any building code that mandates automatic sprinkler systems in new-home construction.
Many of these proposals bear the fingerprints of the states' HBAs, whose members have long opposed sprinkler mandates and have revved up their lobbying activities since last September, when the International Code Council voted in favor of adding a provision to the International Residential Code that calls for the installation of sprinkler systems in all new one- and two-family home construction. That lobbying seems to be thwarting whatever momentum fire services thought they had gained from the ICC vote.
The revised IRC code doesn't go into effect until January 1, 2011, but it's already creating controversy. Yesterday, Rob Nanfelt, executive vice president of the Colorado HBA, disputed in writing claims made by a regional ICC manager, Patrick Coughlin, that the HBA would support the adoption in Colorado of the 2009 IRC "without amendment." Nanfelt wrote, "It would be premature to indicate that we have agreed to anything at this point." He later told BUILDER that his HBA "generally doesn't like mandates," although it recently did concede to a request by the state's governor to support offering options for solar panels or solar prewiring in new homes.
Last month, Minnesota's Department of Labor said the state would continue to follow the 2006 ICC residential and fire codes, forego adopting the 2009 IRC that includes the sprinkler mandate, and review the 2012 version when it comes out. (ICC updates its codes every three years.) The department cited as its reasons the downturn in the housing market and costs related to adopting new codes.
In Texas, lawmakers are mulling House bill 1511, which would allow buyers of new homes under 7,500 square feet to opt out of any mandated sprinkler ordinance, even if the cities they live in adopt it. "We've been pushing this and we're very much in support of it," says Scott Norman, executive director of the Texas HBA. The legislature's insurance committee has tabled a vote on that measure, but if it gets through and is signed by the governor, "it would supersede all local rules," says Steve Randall, regional manager for the National Fire Sprinkler Association.
Sprinkler mandates do have proponents among elected officials, as was shown in Illinois where a Senate committee recently voted 6 to 3 against a bill that would have blocked municipalities from adopting tougher rules. But Jim Dalton, NFSA's director of public fire protection, who has been involved in fire service for 39 years, says that efforts by some states to "preempt this [safety] intervention" by imposing restrictions on mandates or requirements on buildings to install sprinklers is "unprecedented."
Randall also points to another bill under consideration in Texas that would set up a state advisory board to rule on local ordinances. A builder could appeal to that board over issues such as local sprinkler mandates.
Fire service officials are convinced that the formation of statewide advisory boards would all but spell doom for sprinkler mandates because, they assert, those boards invariably would be packed with members whose sympathies lie with the housing industry. In Utah, for example, proposed changes to the makeup of an 11-person Uniform Building Code Commission call for excluding a fire services official. In Alabama, a bill proposing a Building Code Council would include a representative picked by the fire marshal but would also include members chosen by groups representing architects, engineers, general contractors, associated contractors, the state HBA, county commissions, municipalities, code officials, the insurance industry, and voters (the last two would be chosen by the governor).
"It would be like letting truckers set their own speed limits," says Michael O'Conner, chief of the North Shelby Fire District in Alabama and president of the state's Association of Fire Chiefs. O'Connor doesn't dispute that his state needs building and fire codes. (He'd like to see 2009 IRC adopted.) But what he fears is that, the way the political and legislative winds are blowing, "we'll be stuck with the 2006 codes in 2050."
Some sources also believe that establishing advisory boards in states that aren't "Mini-Max"—where municipalities can set their own codes that could exceed their state's minimum standards—would trample on the rights of towns and their citizens to map out their own destinies. "They would totally do away with home rule," says Shane Ray, fire chief in Pleasant View, Tenn., and a board member of the fire and life safety section of the International Association of Fire Chiefs.
Both O'Connor and Randall lament that fire service organizations have done an poor job of educating the public about the merits of mandating sprinklers in new homes. "I've been involved in fire service for 30 years, and we need to do more, because the HBAs have done a very good job placing members on all of these state and local code committees." Dalton adds that he has been "amazed" at how lawmakers, as they have crafted their proposals, have accepted the arguments made by home builders "hook, line and sinker," and without consulting fire officials.
Consequently, claims by fire officials—which they back up with corroborating evidence from builders and engineering testing agencies—that the cost of installing sprinklers in new homes runs from $1 to $2.50 per square foot are drowned out by HBAs' counterclaims that total costs of a sprinkler system are more likely to fall between $8,000 and $15,000, a figure most new-home buyers don't want to hear. Gary Keith, a vice president with NFSA, says that his organization "recognizes that the home building industry has a high level of influence in state legislatures. We just need to get our word out more aggressively."
Is there any room for compromise? O'Connor, for one, hopes so, even though he says the two sides in this argument are still far apart. "We need to come together, and I think there’s a way to install sprinklers that's profitable for the builder and beneficial for the owner."
However, the best that sprinkler proponents can hope for in some states, at least for the moment, is what's being considered in Missouri, where lawmakers in the state's General Assembly are weighing a bill that would keep residential sprinkler installation optional but would also require builders to offer sprinklers as an option and to prove that they are alerting buyers about the availability of that option.
That proposal is part of larger House and Senate bills in front of the General Assembly. Patrick Sullivan, executive vice president of the HBA of St. Louis and Eastern Missouri says he's fairly confident that these bills will get voted on before the Assembly adjourns on May 15.
His HBA supports offering sprinklers as options, although he questions whether home buyers will be clamoring for them. A few years ago, he notes, a local fire protection district passed the mandatory option ordinance, but discontinued it. "One presumes it was because no one was taking it," Sullivan says.
John Caulfield is senior editor at BUILDER magazine.