Push would make sprinklers a must for new residences

A new fire code mandate from the Office of the Illinois State Fire Marshal could become the statewide standard.

The code would make Illinois the third state to require a sprinkler system in all new residential construction.

The office says sprinkler systems will save lives and are cost-effective, but the National Association of Home Builders believes the mandate is unnecessary.

“This mandate would have saved 100 lives of the 125 residential fire deaths we had last year,” said Larry Matkaitis, executive director of the Office of the Illinois State Fire Marshal. “Plus, the sprinklers would save billions of dollars in damages and thousands of injuries.”

Matkaitis said he hopes the code will be passed by the General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Administrative Rules by the beginning of 2014.

“At this point, it is under review and is in the hands of the legislators,” said Milly Santiago, spokeswoman for the Illinois state fire marshal.

Sprinkler systems act quickly to extinguish fires, which is why they are effective, Matkaitis said. Fire doubles in size every 30 seconds.

In addition, 75 percent of firefighters in Illinois are volunteers who need to drop what they are doing to respond to a fire. That takes precious time, Matkaitis said.

Still, the National Association of Home Builders feels that requiring sprinklers is not necessary.

“This mandate has been floating around for many years,” said Tom Stephani, second vice chairman of the Education Committee and a 30-year member of the National Association of Home Builders. “The fire marshal is trying to make it a rule when it should go through legislation. Sprinklers are welcome to those who want them, but most consumers do not think the cost benefit is worth it.”

Housing affordability and making sure housing does not become out of reach for new homeowners is the association’s goal, Stephani said.

“The cost that would be added by the sprinkler mandate will make housing less affordable,” said Stephani, adding that sprinklers would increase the price of a new home by $3 to $5 per square foot.

Matkaitis said the sprinkler system would cost only $1.61 per square foot, and the price could drop even more as the popularity of sprinkler systems increases.

“The sprinklers will be smaller than commercial ones ... and it will save you 10 to 20 percent on insurance,” Matkaitis said. “Let’s say it costs $2 per square foot on a 2,000-square-foot home. Over a 30-year loan, that is only $11 per month. ... You will also save your life, your family’s life and your property.”

The homebuilders also argue that adopting a sprinkler mandate now will further stymie a housing industry that continues to feel the effects of a down economy, Stephani said.

“The homebuilding industry in Illinois is in terrible shape when compared to the rest of the U.S., and this mandate will only make it worse,” he said. “Forty-one states have rejected mandatory sprinklers; only two, California and Maryland, have made it a statewide requirement. That should prove that this is not a large safety issue.”

In addition to sprinklers, the new code would include fire department notification when an alarm is pulled in all new and existing apartment buildings, a sprinkler requirement for all new churches and a carbon-monoxide detector requirement for all occupancies, Matkaitis said.

“The homebuilders have been resisting any safety mechanisms for years,” Matkaitis said. “But think about it: When you buy a car, doesn’t it come with a seat belt and an airbag? Why should your home not come with safety features?”

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