Bill would make residential sprinkler systems optional, not required

March 1, 2010 

A plan to require sprinkler systems in new homes in South Carolina is being challenged in the legislature.

The State Buildings Code Council voted last week to mandate that new homes have sprinkler systems. The rule would take effect early next year.

But Senate Bill 1057, which has been reported out of the Finance Committee, would overturn the council's decision. It would require builders to make buyers aware of all fire-safety options, including sprinklers and smoke detectors, but sprinklers would be optional, not mandated.

Many home builders support the bill, saying sprinkler systems are unnecessary from a safety standpoint and are prohibitively expensive.

Smoke detectors connected to a home's wiring with a battery backup are already required by the state's building code, said Mark Nix, executive director of the Home Builders Association of South Carolina.

He said those detectors give residents a 99.45 percent chance of surviving a fire, according to national statistics.

Ashley Feaster, executive director of the Hilton Head Area Home Builders Association, agreed.

"If safety is the reason for doing this, then smoke detectors should be enough," she said.

Feaster said the cost of installing a sprinkler system averages 1.5 percent of the cost of a new home. For Hilton Head, that could be $4,000 to $10,000, she said. She said that would translate into $4 to $6 per square foot.

But sprinkler system installers disagree.

"The average price of installing a sprinkler system is less than $2 a square foot," said Greg Goodrich, the owner of Automatic Fire Sprinkler Systems, which installs sprinklers throughout the Southeast and has offices in Hardeeville. Goodrich says the cost of a sprinkler system is offset by an average 8-percent drop in the price of homeowners' insurance for people with sprinkler systems.

Goodrich's assessment corresponds with a 2007 study conducted by the U.S. Commerce and Homeland Security departments. The study, "Benefit-Cost Analysis of Residential Fire Sprinkler Systems," found that a sprinkler system in a home can reduce property damage from fire, injuries, fatalities and insurance costs, when compared with having only a smoke alarm or detector.

Lavarn Lucas, chief of the Hilton Head Island Fire and Rescue Division, said he supported mandatory sprinkler systems and recommended that the town support them.

The Town Council is backing the Senate bill.

Other Beaufort County fire officials favor mandatory sprinklers.

"I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that a home with a sprinkler is much safer than one with just a fire alarm," said Burton Fire Chief Harry Rountree.

Fire safety is a controversial subject in South Carolina.

The legislature did not approve tax breaks on sprinkler systems for homes and businesses in the months following two deadly fires in buildings without sprinkler systems in the Carolinas.

One, at a Charleston sofa store without a sprinkler system, killed nine firefighters in June 2007. Four months later, six University of South Carolina students and one Clemson student perished in a house fire at Ocean Isle, N.C., where they were vacationing. The home had a smoke alarm but no sprinkler system.

Forty people statewide died in house fires last year, just under the average of 42 a year during the past decade, according to data from the S.C. State Fire Marshal's office.

But so far in 2010, deaths in single-family house fires are on pace to set a 14-year high.

Nine people have died in S.C. home fires in less than two months this year -- almost double the total for the same period in 2009.

State Fire Marshal John Reich said the increase in deaths might be because residents are using more portable heating units during the colder-than-normal winter.

Sprinklers cut fire-death rates by more than half and reduce property damage by one-third to two-thirds, according to a 2007 study by the National Fire Protection Association.

Home builders remain concerned about the bottom line.

Mike Lowman, vice president of the Home Builders Association of South Carolina, said requiring sprinklers would stymie the already-hurting state housing market. Home sales have been declining for three years and are just beginning to show signs of improvement.

"Our state's economy will not kick-start until the housing sector begins to improve," he said.

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