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New home fire-sprinkler law meets opposition

May 11, 2010 12:00:00 AM PDT
Starting next year, all new homes built in California must have fire sprinklers installed. Are they worth the extra cost? Fire departments and home builders disagree. It's a done deal. But the debate over home fire sprinklers is not over. The housing industry is objecting to the new law.

Places like Long Beach and Orange County have had local residential sprinkler ordinances in place for quite some time. The rest of the state is about to follow.

The housing industry says prices of new homes in California are about to go up -- not because of an economic turnaround, but because of the sprinkler law adopted by the California Building Standards Commission.

Single family homes built after January 1, 2011 must have a fire sprinkler system.

"It's clear to us that sprinklers save lives. They reduce the injuries, and they really protect millions and millions of dollars in property," said Daniel Berlant, spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Home builders say they've constructed the lowest number of homes in each of the last two years since they began keeping records in 1955.

It's hard enough selling new homes in this recession. Mandatory sprinklers would boost prices even higher.

"On a per-home basis, we're probably looking at $5,000 to $6,000 of increased costs once the mandate takes effect," said Bob Raymer, a senior engineer with the California Building Industry Association.

Home builders say older homes are the problem, not new ones.

Their numbers show the majority of home fires where a fatality occurred happened in residences built before 1952.

"We primarily feel it would be better dollars spent to focus on hard-wire smoke detectors into the existing housing stock," said Raymer.

But the state says their numbers show the extra cost is worth it.

With almost half of the fire departments reporting to the state, 44 deaths occurred in homes without sprinklers last year, while no deaths occurred in homes with sprinklers.

There were far fewer injuries too: Nearly 400 in homes without sprinklers; less than three dozen in homes with sprinklers.

"Our typical response times are anywhere from three to five minutes," said Berlant. "The sprinklers are really essential for homes because it's like having the fire department at your house 24/7."

There's virtually no chance to fight the new regulation. Once the sprinkler law was included into the national standard, California requires the state to follow.


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