by Terry Rogers
For the second time at a workshop, Milford City Council discussed adding an ordinance in their building code that would require sprinklers in newly constructed residences. Should Milford choose to add this to their building code, they would join Lewes and Milton who have recently done so. Newark and Delaware City have required residential sprinklers for some time.
“As most of you recall, most council members were at the last workshop related to this in early January, we held a meeting to kind of go over proposed amendments to the chapter on building construction,” Rob Pierce, City Planner, said. “At that meeting, we had representative from the Delaware Sprinkler Coalition, State Fire Marshal’s Office and the Carlisle Fire Company to kind of provide a presentation related to domestic residential sprinkler systems. The presentation includes two proposed amendments that would adopt the 2018 version of the International Residential Code (IRC), the 2018 version of the International Building Code (IBC) and the 2018 version of the International Swimming Pool and Spa code. And again, we currently operate under the 2012 version of all those ordinances. “
Councilman Jason James asked if one of the experts could provide details on the cost per square foot for sprinklers, questioning whether the added cost may put a burden on builders to create affordable housing. Paul Eichler with the Delaware Sprinkler Association stated that the average cost nationally to install residential sprinklers was $1.35 per square foot, but that takes into consideration a wide range of factors. In a review of nine different communities, Eichler found prices that ranged from $1.03 to $3.50 per square foot.
“An average sized home these days, I used 2,400 square feet. That is going to add $8,400 to the cost of the home. And then I amortized that over 30 years, and that would add $40 a month to a mortgage payment. I used a 4% interest rate and I use a 30-year life of the loan to get that $8,400,” Eichler said. “And just to further break that down, that’s $1.34 a day using a 30-day, month average. And I do believe for the building environment here in Delaware, in my conversation with contractors using $2 to $2.50 a square foot was more accurate. Also, I would add that I would encourage you to keep in mind the discount that may be available through your homeowner’s insurance. For example, State Farm provides at least 7% discount on your homeowners with it being sprinklered. I just paid my annual bill at $590. If my house was sprinklered, that would knock 40 bucks off my premium. So, I’m hoping that that gives you some reference for our conversation. And again, I would I’m very comfortable suggesting that $3.50 is high to consider for here in Delaware where we’ve got the infrastructure for tying into municipal system. Especially not only in the within the city but as you get outside the city you can see Artesian and Tidewater continuing to come in to provide water services in the neighborhoods that are being developed.”
Councilman Dan Marabello asked how recent the figures provided by Eichler were and Duane Fox of the Delaware State Fire Marshal’s Office stated that he recently ran real time figures for Sussex County and the $2 to $2.50 per square foot was accurate. He also explained that there may be other fees involved that are not included in the cost per square foot.
“What they don’t include is any tap fee that the city might have and then that depends on how you’re gonna make them provide water into the house,” Fox said. “Typically, you have one tap coming in and you go into the meter pit and split it in the meter pit so that the city can control the domestic water for payment. The sprinkler water doesn’t have a shutoff on it, well it does but it is not something that if they would shut the water off for nonpayment or personal purposes on the domestic water, they would still have their sprinkler system working and there’s obviously shut off stuff inside for when you have an activation.” Fox also explained that the type of home may have an impact on the cost per square foot, for example, he has seen townhouse costs between $1 and $1.80 per square foot.
According to Fox, Sussex County adopted the IBC which eliminated a requirement that three-story townhouses had to have sprinklers. Municipalities in Delaware opted out of requiring sprinklers when the county’s adopted the IBC except for Newark. Pierce explained that Milford usually kept pace with surrounding communities which is why they opted out. If they chose to implement the new building code, only new construction residences would be required to have sprinklers. Fox stated that the legislators added a requirement that all builders must offer sprinkler systems in new construction, but he was not sure who verified that. Joe Clark of NVR Ryan Homes stated that all builders are required to provide a brochure with the benefits of sprinkler systems at the time contracts are signed.
“We also have to provide an estimation of those costs to the buyers,” Clark said. “In the year since that became a requirement, I am only aware of one customer that selected here in New Castle and Kent County. We probably build between 500 and 600 homes each year.”
Fox commented that when his son recently decided to build a home, he was not offered information on sprinkler systems. Councilman Brian Baer stated that when he built his Ryan Home, they were offered a sprinkler system.
“One of the main reasons that Newark added the sprinkler requirement is because they have less volunteer firefighters than they did just 20 some years ago,” John Rudd of the Delaware State Fire Marshal’s Office said. “One of the things, and the chief can elaborate, where are you going to be in five years? As far as volunteers? We see it around the country. It’s a scary thing, especially when they’re marketing Milford close to the beach.”
Questions were asked about how water pressure could impact how well the sprinkler systems may operate and Fox stated that he had not seen a problem in municipal systems but if a house was towards the end of the system there may be pressure issues. In town, Mark Whitfield, City Manager, stated that at the lowest point in the city, PSI was about 46 with the majority of the city over 50. Councilman Todd Culotta asked what the impact fee was to install water in a new home.
“The impact fee for water service is $3,195 per EDU, which is equivalent to one dwelling unit, one house and I think that would be a policy decision as to whether or not we would want to charge a separate connection fee or impact fee for the sprinkler system of the home,” Pierce said. “I know with commercial properties, we charge the impact fees for the interior components of the restaurant or retail space or office space. And if it’s over a certain amount of square footage, it’s required by code. If it is sprinklered, then we will require a sprinkler charge depending on the size of the fire line going into the building. But that’s only for commercial properties at this time. And we’d have to figure out internally as to whether there’s a benefit for us to charge for that additional capacity for the sprinkler in a residential home market.”
Whitfield felt that the city should not charge a separate fee to connect a sprinkler system.
“We would look at what the average annual usage would be. To give you an example, a typical lawn sprinkler system or irrigation system in Milford uses almost as much water as the domestic use within the house itself. So we charge that fee,” Whitfield said. “In the case of a sprinkler line. That line is going to be stagnant most of the time and hopefully, all the time and never be used. So, I don’t foresee that there would be any reason why we would charge an impact fee.”
Whitfield did have a concern with not running the sprinkler line at least through the meter, suggesting that two separate shut offs would be added as Fox suggested to avoid cutting off the water to the sprinkler system should there be a need to shut off domestic water. Clark commented that there may be a need to install a tank and pump rather than hook to a municipal water system which could present an issue for homes without basements.
“Over in Milford Ponds, we are doing some basements. But the majority of the homes are slab on grade due to seasonal high-water tables, things of that nature,” Clark said. “So I guess the other thing to keep in mind is if you can’t get the pressure you need, and you need that pump and tank, now you need to find somewhere in that slab on grade home to put this tank system. Obviously, you typically don’t want it in the garage because you’re not in a conditioned space in the garage. So, then you’re making a smaller bedroom or some sort of a closet, that would house this tank and pump system which does taking away maybe some finished square footage.”
Councilman Marabello asked if there had been any resistance in Lewes or Milton when customers found they were required to install a sprinkler system. Fox explained that the Milton ordinance had not gone into effect yet, but that in Scottsdale, Arizona, sprinklers were required in residences since the 1990s with little resistance.
“There’s a couple of things that that you want to look at when you’re doing this and a lot of people think that when you put in the sprinkler system that means the house is not going to burn down. That’s not that’s not completely true,” Fox said. “The sprinkler system is a life safety system. We’re trying to get people out of the home and not die. And the statistics are staggering for how well these sprinkler systems work in doing that. Really, the sprinkler systems are designed to get people out of the building. We’re really looking at with the systems how we’re going to save lives.”
Fox also explained that most accidental fires are cooking fires. When the fire company goes to a kitchen fire with a sprinkler system, there is a little bit of cabinet or stove damage but the residents are often able to move back in and stay there that night.
“Because only the sprinkler or two sprinklers operate where the fire is so it’s not as devastating when that happens. If you look at the resources just from the water standpoint. Two heads which is what you calculate is around 26 gallons a minute. If to make the math work out a little bit, we’ll say it’s 25 gallons a minute and it takes the fire department 10 minutes to get to your house,” Fox said. “This time was between the call, the time everybody shows up, gets on a fire truck and rides to the place unless it’s right across the street from the firehouse, it’s about 10 minutes. That’s 250 gallons of water that’s going to happen if we go to a house that’s not sprinklered. And when the fire department pulls up after that same 10 minutes, the fire has grown exponentially over that time. And Ryan’s guys are going to put two lines in service at 125 gallons a minute and in the first minute they’re going to flow the same amount of water that a sprinkler system did for 10 minutes. And then, you know 30 minutes to an hour’s worth of work and digging out and all the other things that go with that. So we see that when the fire starts inside the unit where the sprinklers are that the they have a great track record. When it starts outside of that, the people always get out. The only people that die in sprinklered buildings are typically in the room of origin or have some sort of ability issue and they’re inside the room of origin. And that’s a very, very, very small number.”
Ryan Knowles, Chief of Carlisle Fire Company, stated that manpower has been an issue for some time and, although they had enough manpower now, in two weeks that could change. He also confirmed that many of the calls they go on are kitchen fires as people work long hours, come home and start cooking, then fall asleep or forget they have started dinner.
“Our office the State Fire Marshal’s Office is has a has a license strictly for that. And we’ve already seen people that are starting to anticipate this come and one of the people who just got licensed was Harry Caswell. Anyone who is in the building world knows Harry does a lot of plumbing work and site work down in so Sussex County. And he’s seeing that there’s a possible niche for him to get into the sprinkler business in Lewes and Milton, and possibly Milford you know as this comes, I think you’re gonna see that happen across the board,” Fox said when asked about the availability of contractors who install sprinklers. “And the longer this goes, the more people that are going to be doing it. A lot of the companies that do them over at the beach are actually from Maryland. So they’re already in that niche in Maryland. They understand what they’re doing. They’ve got it figured out and they bang it out and that’s how they make money because you got to be able to get in and get out quicker and can’t make any money.”
Councilman Mike Boyle asked who would check on sprinkler systems to confirm they met standards.
“The fire marshal is office is willing to get into partnership with the town until the town can take this on of their own accord. We don’t have the staff ability to do this statewide, but it’s not statewide yet,” Fox said. “The fire marshal’s office is going to review the plans, do an interim inspection called a hydro where they pump the pipe up and we make sure it’s not going to blow apart. And then the final inspection. I usually do those myself as a supervisor. So I try to get those in and out as quick as I can. And then we would make an agreement with Rob’s employees to possibly start training. I think you guys were using, I don’t know if you’re back doing that or not, you were using First State. I know that they’re trying to get a couple of their guys trained. So again, you’re going to see that happen, where you can get some third party people to come and help you. But the fire marshal’s office is going to help you out in the beginning and we’re going to train your guys if that’s what you want to do.”
Council will vote on the changes to the building code at a future meeting.
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