RFS: Trials, Trends and Tribulations
An update on the status of residential fire sprinkler fire systems in Canada.
March 1, 2013 by Mark Evans
The number of NFPA-13D compliant Residential Fire Sprinkler (RFS) systems being installed in single family homes in Canada is on the rise due to a growth in the number of jurisdictions that have mandated compulsory inclusion of RFS systems. However, up to this point mandatory requirements for RFS systems have come solely from local authorities as there are no compulsory regulations requiring RFS systems in any Provincial Building Code or in the National Building Code of Canada.
Established by the National Research Council of Canada (NRC), the Canadian Commission on Building and Fire Codes (CCBFC) develops and maintains Canada’s six model construction and fire codes. The Commission formally approves all model code documents and technical revisions prior to publication by the NRC. It receives policy advice from the Provincial/Territorial Policy Advisory Committee on Codes which is made up of representatives from the provincial and territorial ministries responsible for building, plumbing and fire safety regulation. Changes on a national level would be influenced by the position and recommendations of the CCBFC. Inclusion in the National Building and Fire Codes would be an important step forward as these are the model Codes that largely determine the requirements of Provincial and local Codes across the country.
In the CHBA Report section of the November/December 2012 issue of Home Builder Magazine, there is reference to a 2010 report commissioned by the Canadian Code Centre wherein it was determined that the “cost/benefit equation for mandatory RFS systems was prohibitive.” According to the article, “The report came under intense criticism from some in the fire safety community.” The article continues on to say the “A Task Group, which includes a builder (the Technical Research Committee Chair), was asked to review and comment on its findings. A report is expected for the CCBFC this February.” In fact, the task group has met once by teleconference and will meet again late this month (March 2013). No date has been set for delivery of the report.
AT WHAT COST?
The cost of RFS systems has long been a point of discussion and for some a significant barrier to widespread adoption. According to a 2008 study entitled “Home Fire Sprinkler Cost Assessment” prepared by Newport Partners for the National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA) Fire Protection Research Foundation, the costs per square foot ranged from a low of $.38 to a high of $3.66 with the average being $1.61 per square foot. The study included data from Pitt Meadows, BC where the average installed cost of the homes included in the study was $1.23 per square foot for stand-alone systems.
Further information on costs as found on the web site of the Canadian Automatic Sprinkler Association (CASA) shows that “Nationally, on average, home fire sprinkler systems add 1 per cent to 1.5 per cent of the total building cost in new construction.” In March 2000, City of Surrey (BC) fire chief Len Garis presented to the Fire Department Instructors Conference in Indianapolis, IN. His abstract paper from these proceedings, entitled The Impact of Residential Automatic Fire Sprinklers on Public Fire Protection, details many things, among them the cost of installation in several communities in British Columbia. The information in this paper comes from the Fire Chiefs Association of British Columbia who surveyed the cost of installing sprinklers in a few of its member municipalities. The average price was $1.16 per square foot (see Figure 1).
Assuming the average single-family dwelling is 2500 square feet, the cost would be $2,900. This demonstrates an installed cost element consistent with other sources.
However, part of the reason for the rise in the number of RFS system installations may be driven by capitulation rather than pure choice. As previously mentioned, many jurisdictions throughout North America, such as the City of Scottsdale, AZ (January 1986) and the City of Vancouver, BC (April 1990) have adopted local bylaw amendments that make RFS systems mandatory in new single family construction.
The benefits that accrued to these early adopters have motivated others to do the same, including the City of Pitt Meadows (July 1996) and many others in the Greater Vancouver area. Reasons for this include:
Capital Cost Deferrals- By mandating sprinklers, local authorities may be able to forestall investments in infrastructure. In 1997, assistant fire chief Jim Scott- Rural/Metro Fire Department (Scottsdale) outlined some of the cost benefits to the City of Scottsdale in his paper: Saving Lives, Saving Money, Automatic Sprinklers – A 10 Year Study. The paper explains, “When ordinance 1709 was ready to be presented to the Scottsdale City Council, the primary focus and impact identified not only the life saving factors, but, the economic benefits that could be expected for the approximately 100 square miles of the city still essentially undeveloped. Estimates for the infrastructure costs were based on the current city master plan and showed that substantial savings were possible. The major impact was projected at $7.5 million in infrastructure savings for the water distribution system. Additionally, it was anticipated that the sprinkler ordinance would result in the reduction in size or elimination of at least three fire stations at a savings of $6 million in initial capital costs and annual savings of over $1 million. The final determination identified that the cost of requiring this type of comprehensive fire protection was minimal compared to the life safety, emergency resource management, and property conservation results that would be achieved.”
Annual Cost Reduction – When homes in a community are sprinkled the annual cost of fire protection services is lower as outlined in Chief Garis’ paper. “Even with the cost of sprinklers, the annual Pitt Meadows’ cost of $37.50 per capita is still well below the average for the region and for the Province. The total Pitt Meadows cost of $37.50 is $76.50 less than the regional district average of $114 per capita. Likewise, the total Pitt Meadows cost of $37.50 is $26.50 lower than the provincial average of $64. To restate, even though Pitt Meadows homeowners have to install sprinkler systems, each resident still saves between $26.50 and $76.50 in fire protection costs annually. These per capita savings add up to significant resources at a Municipal level. By multiplying the per capita savings by a population of 14 500, it is apparent that the District of Pitt Meadows saves between $380,000 and $1.1 million each year by requiring sprinklers.”
These are some of the compelling reasons, but what would motivate a developer to include RFS systems in a new project? In the appendix section 4 (A9) of Scottsdale’s Ordinance 1709 there is a benefit summary that lists reasons that are even more significant: Increased development density – There are trade-offs made here between the developer and the local jurisdiction. Sprinkled buildings often allow for reduced fire department access to building sides, they may allow for narrower streets, fewer parking restrictions (and dedicated parking spaces), longer cul-de-sacs, reduced number of fire hydrants, etc.
Further, when you consider that the builder has discretion over the disposition of any cost savings, and the cost of the RFS will accrue to the homebuyer as part of the home price, RFS systems can significantly increase the profitability of a given development.
Finally, what motivates a potential homeowner to want a sprinkled home? Like the other stakeholders, part of the answer is for financial reasons. The web site of the US Fire Administration (FEMA – Department of Homeland Security) promotes the availability of insurance discounts to homeowners; “Insurance from home underwriters will vary depending on type of cov
erage. The discounts now range from five to 15 per cent, with a projected increase in available discounts.” Further, if the developer can save money in services and fees, and can build to higher densities, this may be reflected in lower purchase prices for homes within the development (or result in the homebuyer getting more home for the money).
Life safety would also be a prime motivator for families with small children, members who are infirm or have a physical challenge, or for seniors with limited mobility. By slowing down the fire and notifying family members the presence of a fire, the combination of smoke detectors and an RFS system can provide valuable time to exit the building that likely would not possible in the absence of this combination of systems. Further information from CASA on fire safety in Canada supports inclusion of RFS systems:
• Nationwide, more than 300 people die in fires each year.
• Fire sprinklers save lives, reduce property loss and can even help cut homeowner insurance premiums.
• Installing both smoke alarms and a fire sprinkler system reduces the risk of death in a home fire by 82 per cent, relative to having neither.
Whom (and what) governs the design and installation of RFS systems? In most cases it is the local jurisdiction having authority that reviews the design as part of the permit application and approvals process. RFS system installations are generally undertaken in accordance with (and governed by) the design guidelines as developed by the National Fire Protection Association, specifically the NFPA 13-D Guidelines. Originally developed in 1980, the NFPA 13-D Standard has evolved as new construction products and practices for installation have entered the residential construction market.
TYPES OF SYSTEMS
A wet alarm system is as the name implies full of water, while the dry-pipe system is charged with air and would be employed in circumstances where the system may be subject to very cold temperatures and freezing conditions. In the past, a residential system installation would have been limited to a stand-alone wet system, as dry-pipe systems are typically not suitable in the residential context. However a new voice is now being heard as part of this discussion.
In 1985 the NFPA amended the NFPA 13-D guidelines allowing for a new variation of the standard wet alarm system, this being the multipurpose system. The principal behind this design application is quite ingenious; it combines the RFS system into the home’s potable water distribution system.
On May 12, 1993 the City of Vancouver adopted a modified “flow through” hybrid design version of the stand-alone system; including an element of the multipurpose system. According to David Killey, manager of Fire Busters Inc., an RFS installer in Delta, BC, there are two principle benefits to be gained from this design. One would be the elimination of the backflow prevention device separating most dedicated fire protection systems from the potable water supply. This then also eliminates the annual testing and certification requirements that many jurisdictions have in place to ensure the performance of testable devices.
If such service was required, Killey indicated that, “For Vancouver homes equipped with a testable device, the going rate today is $100 for a DCVA test and full inspection of the sprinkler system.” The other benefit is related to system function, “If the plumbing system does not provide running water, this will not go unnoticed. Thus, system function would be better ensured and failures relating to lack of water (ie: closed supply valves) should be a thing of the past.”
Other proponents of this approach offer other possible benefits, including the elimination of a dedicated water service and meter set for the fire protection system (not required in all jurisdictions).
According to Killey, “There is a proposal to include RFS systems as a mandatory requirement in the National Building Code and Fire Code in the pending revision in 2015.
So, what of the RFS system trend? The industry is watching this very closely. As more jurisdictions choose to mandate RFS systems, both opportunity and competition in this market sector will grow. <>During the course of his career in the mechanical industry Mark Evans has worked in the wholesaler and manufacturer sectors in sales and marketing positions. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.markevans.net.