In September 2008, the International Code Council (ICC) published the 2009 International Residential Code, which includes a requirement for fire sprinklers in all new one- and two-family homes beginning Jan. 1, 2011, as well as in all new townhomes when the code is adopted.

The approval of the residential fire sprinkler code came after much debate and work to form a consensus among stakeholders. However, the debate over the mandate has continued.

Within the past year, several studies that shed light on the costs and benefits of fire sprinklers in homes—both to homeowners and to firefighters responding to home fires—have been released. The Fire Protection Research Foundation, an affiliate of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), issued its "Home Fire Sprinkler Cost Assessment" (download the complete report) in September 2008. The study found the cost to home builders of installing residential fire sprinklers averages $1.61 per square foot, with a range from 38 cents to $3.66 per square foot, including fire sprinkler systems, design, installation, permitting, equipment, and utility fees. The study evaluated installation costs and insurance premium discounts associated with installation of home fire sprinkler systems in 10 communities around the United States and Canada.

More recently the NFPA released a study concluding that local sprinkler ordinances have no negative impact on housing development starts. "Comparative Analysis of Housing Cost and Supply Impacts of Sprinkler Ordinances at the Community Level" (download the complete report) compared residential construction in four Washington, D.C., metro-area counties with and without sprinkler requirements.

Fire protection and safety organizations are in favor of the code, and are encouraging states and local jurisdictions to adopt it. On June 1, 2009, the Federal Emergency Management Agency's U.S. Fire Administration released a statement by Acting U.S. Fire Administrator Glenn A. Gaines in support of the code adoption, citing the benefits of residential fire sprinklers, including their ability to:

  • Save the lives of building occupants;

  • Save the lives of firefighters responding to a home fire;

  • Offset the risk of premature building collapse and injury to firefighters from lightweight construction components; and

  • Substantially reduce property loss due to fires. Home building industry organizations such as the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) and Habitat for Humanity International have voiced opposition to a fire sprinkler mandate for homes, citing the extra cost burden for builders and home buyers alike.

    "Keeping people safe in their homes should be our top priority. The problem is not homes without fire sprinklers; the problem is homes without working smoke alarms," says NAHB chairman Joe Robson. "For that reason, the NAHB agrees with the approach of states that allow builders to continue to offer fire sprinklers as an option rather than a mandate for new home buyers, because they are not a practical, cost-effective solution for every home." NAHB established www.smokealarmswork.org for consumers to learn about the benefits of smoke alarms versus fire sprinklers.

    In 2008, Habitat for Humanity's Elizabeth Blake, senior vice president of advocacy, government affairs, and legal, said this on the subject: "Our affiliates build all across the country and around the world. Mandating fire sprinklers fails to recognize their varying needs, and runs the risk of requiring something that may be impractical for some of our partner families."

    Meanwhile, the National Fire Protection Association has established the Fire Sprinkler Initiative, an advocacy effort to encourage the use of residential fire sprinklers.

    For more on the risks of lightweight construction fires and the benefits of residential fire sprinklers, read NFPA Journal's July/August 2009 cover story.