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Residential Sprinkler Systems – What a home inspector needs to know

There has been much discussion on the installation of residential fire sprinkler systems in one and two family dwellings. The ICC / IRC Section R313.2 was adopted in 2009 and became effective 2011. It states in part;

“An automatic residential fire sprinkler system shall be installed in one and two family dwellings”

Most states require automatic fire sprinkler systems in three story residences, apartment buildings, and many commercial buildings.

Currently, home inspectors are not required to inspect these systems. I believe that if laws are passed requiring sprinkler systems, that will be changed. A home inspection addresses safety issues, and this is definitely a safety issues. Although there is not a law requiring the installation of sprinkler systems in one and two family residences in New York State, there has been meetings of the New York State Residential Sprinkler Task Force. The last meeting took place February 4, 2013 with the New York State Department of State. The key points of this meeting were as follows:

  • It is appropriate to add the requirement for sprinklers because sprinklers are now required for three story single family homes.
  • Expanding the requirement to townhouses
  • Only requiring sprinkler systems in larger homes is not appropriate because it is a life safety issue and only protects those who can afford a larger home
  • If residential sprinklers are to be adopted, there should be a grace period of one to two years

In addition, New York State Bill – A7609-2013 provides a tax credit for the installation of fire sprinkler systems in residential homes. It would allow homeowners to deduct 25% of the materials and labor for the installation of a fire sprinkler system. Like most new requirements some trade organizations are in favor, some opposed.

So far California and Maryland have adopted requirements for automatic fire sprinkler systems in one and two family residences. Many states are in the process of reviewing the code, including New York. Most states have not passed the requirement on the state level, but have adopted legislation to allow for local jurisdictions to adapt the requirement. Minnesota and South Dakota have passed legislation banning the requirement to install sprinkler systems in 1 & 2 family residences.

Fire sprinklers are individually heat activated and connected to a network of pressurized water piping. When the heat rises to approximately 165-175 degrees F, a fusible link or glass bulb will activate only that sprinkler over the fire. As far as accidentally discharging; currently statistics indicate that only 1 in 16,000,000 sprinklers will open per year accidentally.

Although automatic fire sprinkler systems are not part of a visual home inspection (and hopefully are clearly expressed in your contract) here are some guidelines when you encounter a sprinkler system in the field:

  • Nothing should be hanging from the sprinkler heads
  • No sprinkler heads should have been painted, including overspray
  • There should be no obstructions within 18 inches in any direction of the sprinkler head
  • There should be no modifications made to the system. The water supply pipe for this system should only supply sprinkler heads
  • There should be a pressure gauge where the main pipe for the sprinkler system branches off the main water pipe (usually near the main water shut off valve). The gauge should indicate between 40 and 70 PSI.
  • If pressure is lower than 40 PSI, recommend the system is evaluated by a qualified installer
  • It is recommended that fire sprinkler systems should have a test valve. You can inform the homeowner that this is the best way to test the system and to ensure water is flowing through the system. It should be tested/open once a month
  • Some fire sprinkler systems are connected to a home security or alarm system
  • Sprinkler systems should have an alarm that goes off after 90 seconds, and some have a safety device that will shut the water off in the case of a malfunction

It seems that many states and local jurisdiction will adopt the residential requirement for fire sprinkler systems for one and two family dwellings. Home inspectors may or may not be required to inspect these systems. I have inspected two new builds in the past year fitted with automatic fire sprinkler systems. Securing a certification to inspect these systems is something that professional home inspectors may want to consider.

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