Roy Scott

For the next two years, Missouri builders must, by law, offer buyers the option of having fire sprinklers installed during construction.

Give and take between builders and fire service officers, which helped guide this “mandatory option,” could set a precedent for mediating what has long been a contentious issue between the two groups across the country, especially after the International Code Council included a sprinkler mandate for new one- and two-family dwellings in its 2009 International Residential Code, effective Jan. 1, 2011. But both parties agree that sprinkler demand is likely to remain tepid unless manufacturers do a much better job of creating a market for their products.

Until that happens, adding the extra layer of home safety that sprinklers provide will depend mainly on buyers’ willingness to pay for installation, which builders and installers in St. Louis say can add up to $7 per square foot to the price of a new home.

Adding sprinkler systems to new houses in St. Louis is expensive for several reasons. Most homes there have basements, so a system would need to cover more square footage. St. Louis is a union town, and higher-priced labor increases the final cost. And private companies that manage St. Louis’ water supply require sprinkler systems to have separate water lines and meters, which can add up to $5,000 to the cost of installation.

Missouri’s law, which is in force through Dec. 31, 2011, gives consumers the right to accept or reject the sprinkler option. “The thrust of the bill is to allow the buyer the right of choice,” says Patrick Sullivan, executive vice president for the HBA of St. Louis and Eastern Missouri.

The compromise hammered out between the state’s HBAs and its Fire Service Alliance (FSA) holds builders responsible for helping to educate buyers about the safety benefits of sprinklers. So the two groups developed a brochure that gives basic information about fire sprinklers and attempts to dispel myths about them.

“The compromise lays the groundwork to move forward,” says Greg Brown, chief of the Eureka, Mo., Fire Protection District. “We’re taking baby steps in an environment of cooperation.”

The law requires builders to submit a form to prove they offered the option. The form also asks buyers why they did or didn’t purchase a sprinkler system. “If all we did was abide by the state’s law, we’d learn nothing,” says Herb Lesser, who owns MLS Homes and chairs the St. Louis HBA’s fire sprinkler subcommittee. “This agreement allows us to get the facts” about consumers’ decisions.

Cost data are scant because few sprinklers have been installed in homes in this area. An HBA spokesperson says she’s seen estimates of $7.17 per square foot for systems connected to well water. “No one knows, starting out, what to charge,” says Dennis Coleman, president of the St. Louis–based installer Engineered Fire Protection, and vice chairman of the National Fire Sprinkler Association. He and other sources believe that as more systems get installed, prices should come down.

But will enough buyers see past the expense to accept the benefits of installation? Initial evidence suggests this will be a tough sell. Sullivan told Builder in late October that only one out of the first 100 forms his HBA received from builders had a buyer who chose the purchase option, and that buyer later backed out.

Michael Mahler, business manager for the Sprinkler Fitters Union Local 268, agrees that finding out why buyers will or won’t purchase sprinklers is useful. “If it comes down to the fact that [union fitters] can’t compete, we’ll have to deal with that.”

MLS Homes charges $3 per square foot for sprinkler installation, with no profit, Lesser says. He thinks most buyers will view sprinklers as nonessential until manufacturers change their perceptions. Larry Boyle, chief of the Fenton, Ill., Fire Protection District and FSA’s president, says his group is working with installers to conduct demonstrations for consumers and is talking with water suppliers and insurers about cost savings and incentives.

Brown and Boyle suggest that one more-affordable solution could be a product ITT makes called the 13D Home Defender. A water tank that homeowners can fill using a garden hose feeds a pump-driven system, thereby eliminating the need to connect to a municipal water supply. The Home Defender costs $2,500, so a sprinkler system with plumbing and heads conceivably could be installed in a new home in St. Louis for under $10,000, or $6,000 less than a conventional system.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: St. Louis, MO.