Fire sprinkler mandates will be part of the 2009 International Residential Code (IRC) and will be required in all one- and two-family homes and townhouses that build to the code as of Jan. 1, 2011.

The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), along with the Concrete Home Building Council membership, was involved at the International Code Council (ICC) final action hearings, Sept. 17-23 in Minneapolis. Both staff and members have been petitioning the involved parties to reconsider the position on mandatory residential fire sprinklers.

The sudden arrival of 900 fire officials eligible to vote at the ICC's final action hearings in Minneapolis swelled the number of sprinkler proponents and the measure was approved by a vote of 1283 to 470 for the Sunday morning vote in late September.

About 1200 voting devices were turned in immediately after the residential fire sprinkler mandate was approved, suggesting that most proponents left immediately after the vote.

"We welcome the insight and experience that fire officials bring to the code development process because our model codes are focused on life safety issues," says James "Andy" Anderson, chair, NAHB Construction, Codes and Standards Committee. "However, it seems clear that these particular officials were focused on one issue residential fire sprinkler mandates—without any benefit of perspective regarding how such mandates jibe with the hundreds of other code proposals considered at this hearing. That's unfortunate, because such reasoned discussion is what the model code process was designed to accomplish."

The residential fire sprinkler mandates will provide a sizable financial boon for the fire sprinkler manufacturing industry, which, like NAHB, helped provide funding for building officials to attend the hearings.

In 2005, when there were about 1.65 million new homes constructed at an average 2340 square feet, sprinkler manufacturers would have reaped about $5.8 billion in revenue, based on average sprinkler costs of $1.50 per square foot, had the sprinkler requirement been in effect.

NAHB had identified several concerns regarding residential fire sprinkler systems—among them, questioning whether most homeowners are prepared to perform the maintenance required to ensure that the sprinklers remain operational.

Builders also cite the potential for pipes installed in attics to freeze in colder climates and they say that the sprinklers can be discharged accidentally, with damaging results. In areas served by wells or where water is scarce, the availability of an adequate water supply is another possible problem.

NAHB pointed to several existing code requirements that have contributed to a significant decline in fire-related deaths and injuries for the past 30 years. The most effective improvement has been the hard-wired interconnected smoke alarms, which the code requires to be installed in every bedroom and on every floor.

Both the American Fire Sprinkler Association and the National Fire Sprinkler Association offer training programs for residential sprinkler installation and certification. Because there is only a limited number of certified subcontractors, the sprinkler requirement will appear in the 2009 IRC but not take effect until 2011, giving the industry three years to prepare.