Builders: Fire-sprinkler mandate is all wet

The Pennsylvania Builders' Association has sued the state to prevent it from adopting a set of building codes that the association says will force builders to pass on higher costs to new-home buyers.

The association is particularly rankled by a mandate that fire sprinkler systems be installed in all townhouses and one- and two-family homes.

The state updates its building code every three years based on new national guidelines, which also include required increases in insulation and wall-bracing.

PBA spokesman Scott Elliott said the organization objected to the updated code as a whole, not just the mandate for fire-sprinkler systems.

But because sprinkler systems are costly to install, Elliott said, "consumers should have the choice" of whether they want them.

Elliott estimated that sprinklers cost $5,000 to $7,000 for the average home, compared to $500 for a hardwired smoke-detector system.

The Fire Protection Research Foundation said that the price tag for sprinkler systems is about $1.61 per square foot, or an average of about $3,656.

Lance Haver, Philadelphia's director of consumer affairs, said that the PBA suit brings up legitimate questions about fire safety but that the association isn't going about it the right way.

"It is certainly within reason to say this is not the most appropriate way to deal with fire risk," he said, calling PBA's legal action "ludicrous."

Instead, Haver said, the PBA should raise the issue with the state Legislature to organize a hearing.

Buddy Dewar, vice president of regional operations for the National Fire Sprinkler Association, said smoke detectors alone don't provide adequate fire protection.

A shift to more lightweight building materials in recent years, Dewar said, has cut the amount of time firefighters have to evacuate a burning house before it collapses. Sprinklers also dramatically reduce property damage, he added.

"Fire sprinklers save your life," he said. Smoke detectors just "give you an opportunity to save your life."