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Michigan Builders Fight Costly Residential Fire Sprinklers

The Michigan Association of Home Builders is working with a coalition of affordable housing organizations to fight mandatory fire sprinklers.

The state Department of Labor and Economic Growth, which administers the building code for Michigan, plans to hold hearings on the proposal in November.

While required in commercial and multifamily construction, residential fire sprinklers have been rejected as a cost-effective solution for single-family homes, especially with the proven effectiveness of smoke alarms. However, sprinkler manufacturers and installers are mounting a new offensive to get them mandated in communities throughout the United States.

Provisions for residential sprinkler systems were added to the 2006 International Residential Code — but in the optional appendix only. A community adopting the IRC must additionally choose to adopt that part of the appendix if it wants to mandate sprinklers.

“This is really an issue about the preservation of affordable housing and personal choice,” said Lee Schwartz, executive vice president for government relations at the Michigan HBA. “The sprinkler folks say it’s about providing a level of safety, but the same level of safety is already provided by smoke alarms.”

During the 2003-2004 legislative session, Michigan builders threw their support behind a bill requiring smoke alarms to be installed in all houses, including homes built before 1974. Studies show that most house fires take place in older homes, and that’s where safety measures like smoke alarms are likely to make the biggest impact, Schwartz said. The bill passed.

In the last 20 years, the number of people who have died as a result of a fire in their homes has plummeted, according to federal statistics. A 2001 study reported in the New England Journal of Medicine recommended that prevention efforts should be targeted at populations where rates of injury and death from residential fires are highest: elderly, minority and low-income households.

At an average of $50 per home, smoke alarms are significantly less expensive than sprinkler systems to purchase and install — especially if the home is on well water, when the system needs dedicated tanks and pumps.

“Within the last 10 years, we have dramatically increased home safety in new construction,” he said.  “When sprinklers cost $2 to $3 per square foot, you’re pricing out the families who would most benefit from an affordable new home, and allowing them to remain in an older, poorly maintained home that’s demonstrably less safe. That is the paradox of mandatory sprinkler requirements — you end up putting even more people at risk.”

For more information, e-mail Calli Schmidt at NAHB, or call her at 800-368-5242 x8132.

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