Residential Fire Sprinklers

I ran across an interesting article at QRFS.com’s Blog titled The Conflict Over Residential Fire Sprinkler Requirements which I found interesting. It does a reasonable job of laying out pro’s and con’s on the the cost of the systems themselves and their safety benefits. What it does not discuss is the additional regressive fees that communities are currently putting on these systems. This is often a hidden tax as well, i.e. one that’s not recognized until the bill comes after construction.

This is an argument I had with the Town of Culver last year. Sand Hill Farm Apartments has a Fire Sprinkler System. This is required by the State of Indiana. We also installed a fire hydrant on the property. This was not required, but just seemed like a reasonable way to terminate the line. (There is a fire hydrant adjacent to the site in the street, so there was no insurance benefit or coverage benefit to it. It was just there to flush the line.) Before construction was even complete, we received two invoices from the Town, one for $700 for having a Fire Hydrant and one for $1,200 (plus tax!) for having a Fire Sprinkler System. When I inquired about this, I was told that it was in the ordinance. It doesn’t cover material, maintenance, inspections, replacement or any other service. Paraphrasing: It is there to cover additional load and upsizing of the system to support the additional fire protection. These are arbitrary fees, i.e. it is the same fee whether one of these is installed in a single family home, a 24 unit apartment building or a 400,000 sf manufacturing facility.

Rough-in Complete on an apartment at The Paddocks. Sprinkler lines are in orange

This is not solely picking on Culver. Culver is just where it first came to my attention. While they are not as high, Plymouth has the same fees. Neither community allows for higher densities (as suggested in the linked article) or gives any other incentives; just punitive fees if these things are installed. They are also not capped, so if a developer/apartment building owner/homeowner would rationalize these fees as they stand and plan for them, there is no guarantee that they will not double or triple in the future. Being an arbitrary fee suggests that it can change arbitrarily as well. These fees are apparently suggested by the accountants doing the rate studies as a way of reducing fees charged to residents.

The forlorn fire hydrant that was removed from the Sand Hill Farm Apartments site

It cost $500 to remove the fire hydrant at Sand Hill Farm Apartments. Wasted money on top of the original installation, but a reasonable investment against $700 or more a year forever more. Again, there was no issue regarding coverage as there is a fire hydrant in the street in front of the building. It was installed on site as a way to flush the line where it terminated.

In my opinion, the assertions made about the additional costs for the system are specious. 1) The standard line size was used in the street in front of the apartments to provide the loop service and to supply the fire hydrant that would have been there regardless of the development. The line was not upsized due to the sprinkler system. 2) The whole point of the sprinkler system is to put out a fire before it spreads. Theoretically, a fire in one of the apartments would be extinguished before it spread to other units, using much less water than a building that could otherwise be engulfed in flames.

Furthermore, it would make sense to encourage sprinkler systems with incentives in lieu of penalizing them with regressive fees. 1) They improve life safety for residents. 2) They improve life safety for fire fighters. 3) They reduce fire fighting equipment costs. 4) They improve a communities fire rating, which helps all residents.

Townhouse unit under construction at The Paddocks

Because the State requires sprinkler systems in multifamily housing, the local community has building owners over a barrel. We took this into account for the Riverside Commons project planned for Plymouth. That development will be 100% townhouses. By using this model, with firewalls in-between units, the State requirement is void. This increases initial construction costs, but helps control yearly ownership costs.

At some point, as discussed in the QRFS article, fire sprinklers may be required in all residential construction. I cannot say this is a bad thing or that it doesn’t improve life safety. It is one more thing that contributes to the high cost of housing and is an expense that must be considered on any affordable housing project.

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