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Debate over home sprinklers heats up

THE BALTIMORE SUN

If they'd had a choice, James Dietzel says, he and his wife, Carol, would not have put a fire sprinkler system in the spacious new home they're building in Potomac, a tony suburb of Washington.

Neither smokes, and in all of the homes in which they've lived, the retired couple has never had even a kitchen flare-up.

"My goodness, we've lived in about four or five new homes, and ... we've never had any problems," he said.

But the Dietzels didn't have a choice because sprinkler systems are required in all new homes built in Montgomery County. Dale Thompson, whose company is building the Dietzels' new home, estimates that the fire suppression system adds about $25,000 to the cost of their two-story brick colonial.

Though pricey, sprinkler heads could become a fixture in many new homes in the next few years, as fire safety advocates push for communities across the country to adopt building codes mandating the systems in all new dwellings. There are signs in Maryland and nationwide that the effort could be gaining traction.

Last week, Carroll County officials voted to require them in new single-family homes starting next year - becoming the first county in the Baltimore area to do so and only the third in Maryland. Prince George's County has required sprinklers in all new homes since 1992, and Montgomery followed suit last year.

"There is no better safety factor," said David Victor, who designs sprinkler systems for a living. He installed one a few years ago in his growing family's new house in Hampstead, and he says he sleeps better knowing that "whatever should occur," his children's lives are better protected from fire.

Necessity questioned

But home builders question the need for them, arguing that sprinklers are an unjustifiable expense that few buyers want, especially as they strain to keep up with soaring housing prices.

"I think people feel intuitively safe in a [new] single-family house, and they should," said Tom Ballentine, government affairs director for the Home Builders Association of Maryland. He and other industry officials contend that smoke detectors, already required in all new homes, and modern construction materials and techniques have significantly reduced the risks to life and property from fires.

The debate extends beyond Maryland, with fire safety advocates and real estate interests nationwide arguing the merits of residential sprinklers.

Nationally, fire deaths have declined 8 percent from 1994 through 2003, the last year for which the U.S. Fire Administration has data. In Maryland, the number killed in blazes has varied from 67 in 2000 to 87 last year, as reported by the state fire marshal's office - with Baltimore accounting for about one-third of the deaths.

But fire safety advocates say the national average of 3,900 deaths remains too high, and they note that 87 percent of those killed in residential fires were in single-family homes or duplexes. While many of those deaths occurred in older homes - many without working smoke detectors - advocates contend that putting sprinklers in new homes would still be a major step toward reducing fatalities and injuries.

Earlier this month, members of the National Fire Protection Association, which represents firefighters and others, voted to adopt a model safety code that calls for automatic sprinkler systems in all new one- and two-family dwellings. The final decision of the nonprofit group rests with its standard-setting council, which meets next month. Similar proposals are pending before the group that sets model building codes. If either is adopted, state and local officials will feel more pressure to write those requirements into law.

Maryland was the first state to require sprinklers in townhouses in 1992, and the devices have been mandated since 1990 in apartments, hotels, dormitories, hospitals and nursing homes. Lawmakers have largely steered clear, however, of ordering them put in single-family homes.

The exception, until recently, was Prince George's County, which in 1987 enacted an ordinance requiring sprinklers in all new residences by 1992. Since that requirement took effect, Prince George's fire officials point out, no one has died in a fire in a house with sprinklers.

An issue of cost

The issue comes down to one of sprinklers' cost, and the public's indifference to having them in their homes, experts on both sides agree.

The systems can cost anywhere from $2,200 to $5,000 for the average new house, but can range upward to $25,000 and more for the mini-mansions that are often built in the exurbs. At today's new home prices, advocates say that sprinklers push up the overall price about 1 percent. "Every dollar you add to that house raises the income limit of what a family can afford," counters Ed Sutton, a vice president of the National Association of Home Builders.

Whatever the price, relatively few home buyers opt to pay for sprinklers if given the choice. Howard County, which this year started requiring home builders to give customers the option of installing the systems, has had only four takers so far out of nearly 300 building permits issued, according to Don Mock, fire protection engineer with the county's licensing and inspections department.

"Actually, it's more than I expected," Mock said.

When home buyers confer with builders on what amenities to include in their new house, he said, "they see the benefits of the sunroom, but they don't see the benefits of the sprinkler system."

Builders say new home buyers' coolness to sprinklers is no surprise, especially in suburban counties where fire deaths are low. Howard County, for instance, has averaged one fire death a year since 2000.

But sprinklers spare property damage as well, notes Deputy Chief Kevin Simmons of Howard's Fire Department, and allow residents to return to their homes more quickly after a blaze. Property loss from fires in county residences with sprinklers averages $4,800, Simmons said, compared with $56,000 in homes without them.

Another deterrent to sprinkler sales is what advocates say are the "myths" about the systems - that they can leak and cause water damage, for instance, or that all sprinkler heads activate no matter how small the fire, soaking everything. Sprinkler contractors say that sensors in each spray head release water only where heat is detected, and leaks are very rare. And for residents worried about aesthetics, they note that there are even sprinklers that can be mounted flush to or recessed into the ceiling - at extra cost, of course.

For those who do freely choose sprinklers, it's often after witnessing the havoc fire can wreak. Though he works for a sprinkler company, Victor said he only decided to install them in his Carroll County house after his wife watched a news report about a fatal Baltimore fire and insisted on having them.

Just like airbags

Despite builder and homebuyer resistance, many fire safety advocates are convinced sprinklers are worth requiring. They liken the debate to the one in the 1960s over vehicle airbags.

"No one was going to their auto dealer saying how many airbags can I get in my car," notes Eric Goldberg with the American Insurance Association, an industry group that supports sprinklers. Now, with auto makers competing to convince consumers of the safety of their vehicles, Goldberg says, "I think it really is a matter of changing the culture."

It's unclear whether the Baltimore area will have more mandates on new-home sprinklers anytime soon. Baltimore County fire officials have been "intensely" researching the issue for about six months, according to spokeswoman Elise Armacost. In the city and Anne Arundel and Harford counties, officials indicate there haven't been any recent discussions.

After years of giving their new home buyers the option, with little response, Montgomery County officials decided to make sprinklers mandatory last year. The Dietzels' retirement home in Potomac was among those hit with the new requirement - something to which Jim Dietzel now seems resigned.

"Would we have gotten it had it been an option? I have to admit I seriously doubt it," he said. "But that doesn't mean [not getting them] would be a wise decision."

Sun staff writers Laura Barnhardt and Grant Huang contributed to this article.

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