Sides Align In Sprinkler Mandate Debate


Firefighters want communities to be able to opt-in to a sprinkler mandate for new single family homes, but builders warn that the policy could add thousands or tens of thousands of dollars for homeowners in an already strained housing market.

Representatives from both groups testified before the Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security on Tuesday, taking opposing positions on the Reps. Ruth Balser and Paul Donato bill that would give municipalities the local option to require automatic sprinklers be installed in new construction of single and two-family homes (H 2289).

The bill was supported by the committee last session and gained support in the House, Balser said, but was left without action once in the Senate's hands.

"Bottom line is: sprinklers save property; they save lives; they save firefighters' lives," Fire Chiefs' Association of Massachusetts Government Affairs Director William Scoble told the committee. It's a sentiment echoed by Franklin Fire Chief James McLaughlin who said the data is unambiguous, "sprinklers greatly reduce deaths and property losses from fire."

Bill Miller, the fire chief in Hopkinton, said the town is in the process of completing a 1,000-home subdivision of single and two family homes that include residential sprinklers.

"Over the past three years there have been two fires, candle and cooking causes, in this residential section with one sprinkler head containing each fire with minimal damage," Miller said. "In 2022, there was a third fire in a triplex caused by careless disposal of oily rags of a unit under construction. Again, one sprinkler head contained that fire and saved $2.1 million worth of property. Three days later, we experienced another house fire... that had no residential sprinklers, and the house was a total loss with a value of over $1 million."

But while meant to improve safety, sprinkler mandates for new construction could cost homebuyers thousands, said Benjamin Fierro, an attorney representing the Home Builders and Remodelers Association of Massachusetts.

Additionally, the builders association opposes the measure as it could create a patchwork of building codes in different municipalities, he said.

"The fire marshall himself, when the [Board of Building Regulations and Standards] was looking at this issue, estimated the added cost would be between $4,500 or $6,500 to new single family homes. But keep in mind that that cost can balloon to $12,000, or much more, depending on issues, for instance, of whether or not it's municipal water," Fierro said.

Homes that use well water could carry significantly higher costs to install these systems, according to the attorney. He also said that the systems require inspections and maintenance, which continue to cost homeowners more money every year, and can be problematic for those who own vacation homes that are empty for significant periods of time.

Homebuilders surveyed "at least" five years ago found that the average cost for installing a sprinkler system was over $13,000, Fierro said, warning that inflation could have made this price higher over the last few years.

Asked about the estimated costs for homeowners, the fire chiefs gave a much lower number -- around $3,500 for each house based on the invoices from the new Hopkinton developments.

Miller said the installation costs about $1.35 per square foot in most houses in the town, going up to $1.65 per square foot for homes with a pump and tank system and up to $2.40 per square foot at the highest.

House Committee Chair Carlos Gonzalez said identifying an accurate cost for homeowners will be an important part of the committee's decision on the bill.

Fierro told the committee that the additional costs to property owners "have to be considered" in a broader context of housing prices. The Department of Environmental Protection is currently reviewing and developing new regulations having to do with stormwater runoff and have estimated regulation changes could cost single family homeowners $18,500, he said.

"I would ask the committee to seriously think about, under these circumstances, to take a hard look at this legislation. Look at the cost impact. And seriously study this issue as we're trying to address the housing crisis," Fierro said.

Locally, Paul DeBaggis, former Franklin Building Commissioner. Certified Building Official and Senior Third Party Inspector, said "Opt in for sprinklers in one and two family dwellings gets a no vote from me." He takes issue with the local option approach. "The reason we have a uniform State Building Code is because it succeeded 351 individual building codes in Massachusetts cities and towns," he said.  That number of codes led to chaos in our state, he said, which is why he believes we should. keep a uniform building code. "While I do not support sprinklers in one and two family dwellings, I would possibly reconsider provided I saw empirical evidence of increased life safety by placing sprinklers in them," he added.

Echoing and enlarging on McLaughlin's comments, Deputy Fire Chief Joseph Barbieri said simply, "Home fire sprinklers are needed now more than ever."

" We experience fires that burn hotter and spread much faster today. This is due to modern building materials and interior finishes. Home fire sprinklers help provide time for the occupants of a home to escape. They also make it safer for firefighters responding to the home by slowing the progression of the fire and even putting the fire out before we arrive. Sprinklers in residential homes are affordable and easy to maintain.

"We respond to residential fires where there are no sprinklers. These fires leave homes and valuables destroyed. Residents often have to find other temporary housing and can be out of their homes for several months while they deal with insurance companies to rebuild. Sprinklers would allow residents to escape and have limited damage to their homes allowing them back in quicker," he continued.

Barbieri recommended visitng the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition website.

"They offer additional information and even have a video that helps show how sprinklers work in homes," he added.

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