Residential Fire Sprinklers are Hot Topic at Workshop

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Underwriter’s Lab test video of modern vs legacy room,

ROCK SPRINGS — Should residential fire sprinkler systems become part of the local building code?

The Rock Springs City Council heard arguments for and against the systems on Tuesday during a workshop.

Brad Carroll with the Wyoming Department of Fire Prevention and Electrical Safety spoke about the benefits of the systems and the costs associated with them.

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Carroll said that many people harbor misconceptions about fire sprinkler systems. One of the biggest is that the systems cause more water damage than a traditional fire department response.

Carroll said that the sprinklers typically output 20 gallons a minute while a fire hose outputs around 150 gallons per minute.

Carroll explained that the heat from a fire pops a glass bulb in the sprinkler head allowing water to flow. However, the system does not activate all of the sprinklers at the same time.

A full activation is how the systems are often portrayed in television and movies.

Carroll said that a sprinkler head tends to contain the fire near its source before it spreads any further, which further limits the damage.

Contractor and Developer Concerns

Several contractors and developers in the audience spoke about the cost and unintended consequences of otherwise well-intended building regulations.

Representatives of Smart Dwellings, a company that specializes in affordable housing said that the cost of mandated sprinkler systems could force potential homeowners to settle on an older, cheaper home that is inherently less safe than, up-to-date homes.

The company’s representatives explained that many home buyers stretch their budget to the absolute last dollar that their credit allows and even a $5,000 increase to the total cost of a home makes a huge difference in what a customer can expect to buy.

The additional costs of sprinkler systems could be somewhat offset by other savings such as spacing fire hydrants further apart in the subdivision.

Other contractors asked about specific technical aspects of the systems.

Cost and Regulation

Councilman Jason Armstrong and Rob Zotti both expressed a distaste for excess government regulations.

A compromise solution of offering a discount or even waiving the tap fee for homes built with sprinklers was discussed.

A tap fee is charged for connecting a home to the public water and sewer system.

Armstrong said he doesn’t like to give out freebies and asked what savings the systems could provide to the city to offset the lowered or waived tap fee.

Rock Springs Fire Chief Jim Wamsley said that he did not foresee that sprinkler systems reducing the fire department’s manpower requirements, Wamsley pointed out that firefighters would still need to respond to the sprinkler activation and that instead of fighting the fire their job would shift to damage mitigation and shutting off the system as necessary.

Wamsley said he is for mandated sprinkler systems; one reason is that modern furnishings actually reach a state of flash-over much quicker than older furnishings.

In an Underwriters Laboratories test the modern room reached a state of flash-over in five minutes compared to 29 minutes in the legacy room.

Flash-over occurs when the majority of exposed surfaces in a space are heated to their autoignition temperature and emit flammable gases.

Wamsley said that even with the RSFD’s quick response time the phenomenon can easily occur in a the few minutes it typically required to discover a fire, report and respond to it.

Rock Springs has been benefiting from a low incidence of residential fires. Wamsley cautioned that in other parts of the country the trend has been different, even for new construction.

Mayor Carl Demshar said that he would like to see data about the systems being implemented in a similarly frigid climate as Rock Springs.

Demshar thanked everyone that was involved in the workshop and said that he needed more answers before forming an opinion.