NFPA 25: Compliance Need Not Break the Bank

July 26th, 2010

Maintenance of water-based fire suppression systems can be a challenge in a down economy that is filled with corporate directives to cut costs. This session examines strategies for inspecting, testing, and maintaining systems in accordance with NFPA 25 without busting the budget. The session reviews cases where owners, AHJs, and service providers have worked together to manage the risk of loss from fire while keeping the costs as low as possible.

Recording from 2010 NFPA Conference in Las Vegas, NV.
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Russ Leavitt - NFPA 25 Compliance Need Not Break the Bank

Calling All Fire Sprinkler Contractors

August 14th, 2009

In January of this year, the NFPA 25 technical committee reviewed and voted on proposals for revisions for the 2011 edition of the standard. The proposals contain a number of submissions that are intended to better define the scope and purpose of the standard. The misinterpretation and misapplication of NFPA 25 is a serious issue for contractors and owners. Considering that it is nearly 17 years since the publication of the first edition, I find it a bit disturbing that there is still so much confusion.

It is generally accepted that the inspections and tests mandated by the standard are not intended to identify or reveal design or installation deficiencies. However, there exists a large number of local and state authorities having jurisdiction that do not understand (or in a few instances refuse to accept) this limited scope of NFPA 25. As a result, contractors and owners are caught in between following what is mandated by the adopted edition of the standard and providing what is required through these misinterpretations. The problem is especially acute in jurisdictions where the contractor is required to report deficiencies or provide a certification of the system status such as in the states of Texas, Georgia, and Florida. Also, the state of California has adopted its own version of NFPA which contains mandatory reporting requirements.

There is logic behind limiting the scope of the standard to the operational status of a system. First, statistics show that a large majority of system failures can be directly attributed to a lack of maintenance. The inspections and tests contained in NFPA 25 are intended to assist the owner in identifying operational deficiencies or revealing a lack of maintenance. We can eliminate a majority of system failures by performing the required tasks at the required frequency. This is not meant to imply that design or installation deficiencies do not exist. It is a simple recognition that the highest benefit comes from investing precious capital resources in the maintenance of fire protection systems.

Second, the installation standards by which water based systems are designed and installed are not retroactive except in the case where an authority having jurisdiction concludes that a condition exists that is so severe as to warrant mandating the retroactive application of the new or revised requirement(s). As a result of the installation standards not being retroactive and coupled with the lack of original installation records for most buildings, it is very difficult for a contractor to determine what requirements were in effect at the time the system was designed and installed (many jurisdictions run years behind the year of publication with the adoption of standards.) In addition, there may have been local amendments to the standard or the jurisdiction may have granted variances on a specific project. The cost to the owner for researching and applying this information for the sake of identifying design or installation defects is simply not worth the benefit. That said, recognize that NFPA 25 does not allow the owner to completely dismiss or ignore design or installation issues. The standard requires the building owner to evaluate the protection systems utilizing a qualified contractor or consultant whenever a change is made to the building itself or its use.

Finally, with the instructions specified by NFPA 25 for conducting inspections and tests, it is simply impractical for most design and installation flaws to be identified. For example, the requirement for identifying and correcting obstructions to sprinkler spray pattern was essentially eliminated from the 2008 edition due to the many changes over time to the rules applying to obstructions and the virtual impossibility to identify the required tolerances from the floor (the vantage point specified by NFPA 25).

However, there is not argument that the language in the standard could be made more precise in regards to scope and intent. The proposals to NFPA 25 demonstrate this. It is time for contractors to stand up, get involved, and assist those who are trying to make these changes. Contractors need to obtain the Report on Proposals (ROP), review the committee actions, and provide comments where he or she feels a committee action is inconsistent with their interests. NFPA allows anyone to comment on committee actions and the committee is required to review each comment and respond. I have seen many committee actions reversed after the comment period. To get involved, you can access the Report on Proposal from NFPA. Your comments are important. NFPA standards are consensus documents and it is time for contractors to speak up. I can tell you from my involvement with NFPA committees, they do listen. So, the call is out–Don’t miss this chance to help shape one of the most important standards in the industry.

Plumbing Contractors Needed for Residential Fire Sprinkler Work

June 17th, 2009

Part two of a five part series focusing on the rapidly growing residential fire sprinkler market and why plumbing contractors are best positioned to capture this opportunity.

To view part one of the series visit “Residential Fire Sprinkler Requirements Coming Soon!

The incorporation of amendment RB64-07/08 in the International Residential Code (IRC) for fire sprinklers to be installed in all single family homes constructed after January 1, 2011 will have a dramatic impact on the demand for qualified design and installation technicians. In addition, the demand for licensed contractors will experience a corresponding rise since most states and jurisdictions have some form of contractor licensing requirements.

It is estimated nationally that approximately 7500 firms were actively engaged in fire sprinkler contracting during 2008. The vast majority of these entities were of the cottage variety with average annual revenues of $1 million and less than 10 full-time employees. Industry data indicates that approximately 42 million sprinklers were installed in 2008 with less than 1 million of these in single family homes. Estimates indicate that there are presently 15,000 trained installation technicians serving the fire sprinkler industry and the vast majority are focused on commercial applications. As the 2009 IRC is adopted by various states and local jurisdictions, the numbers of qualified contractors and trained labor needed will stretch the available resources to the point where demand will far outstrip the available supply.

Using HUD’s 40 year average for new single family home construction and considering when the code requirement will be adopted by virtually all jurisdictions, it is estimated over 7000 additional trained installation technicians will be needed to meet the increased demand. However, even when conservatively assuming that only one-half of the new homes are sprinklered, the number is still over 3000 additional technicians. The plumbing industry is well positioned to supply a good part of this demand for skilled labor. Sprinkler systems are essentially a piping system equipped with nozzles (fire sprinklers) having specific installation criteria. The average plumber can quickly develop the skills needed to install fire sprinkler systems. In fact, it is expected that the majority of single family residential fire sprinkler systems will be combined with the domestic systems and, in reality, the plumbing contractor is the only choice to effectively install these systems.

Even with the historically low numbers of single family residences under construction in the current economic downturn, this is a billion dollar opportunity that the prudent plumbing contractor cannot ignore. However, there are barriers to entry. Licensing, insurance, and access to training programs are the most daunting, but all can be overcome.

Entities installing fire sprinkler systems are required to be licensed contractors in most states. Just as with plumbing, the requirements run the gamut. Some states are as simple as filling out an application and paying a fee while, at the other end of the spectrum, there are states that require years of experience, exams, and certifications in fire protection technology. Fire Smarts, LLC, in partnership with the PHCC, is developing resources specifically to help plumbing contractors sort out these differences and identify licensing requirements for the states they service. One movement that is already underway is creating a license that is specific to residential fire sprinkler systems to recognize the simpler design issues and the economy of having plumbing contractors involved in the market. The states of Washington, Texas, South Carolina and Georgia among others are examples of states that have already created, or are considering creating, this separate category.

Insurance is a barrier that the market place will address. There are reports that plumbing contractors who contacted their brokers have been quoted extravagant premiums when adding fire sprinkler installation to their business coverage. Others report that some insurance carriers are beginning to extend coverage for fire sprinkler installation provided that a qualified third party is supplying an approved system design. The demand for this insurance will open the insurance market and the carriers will meet the demand as the market expands. In the meantime, in regions where residential fire sprinkler systems are common such as California and Nevada, the general contractors have rolled the fire sprinkler contractor’s protection under their umbrella when the contractor was not able to bind coverage.

Fire Sprinkler Labor Needs

Training is the remaining significant barrier. Programs are in development at this time that will be geared to take experienced plumbers and add the skill set for fire sprinkler installation. The manufacturers of sprinkler piping, sprinkler heads, valves, and multi-purpose systems also have training programs for fire sprinkler contractors that can easily be adapted to the plumber. In addition, apprenticeship programs can be updated to incorporate modules that specialize in residential fire sprinkler requirements.

The market demand is coming and those contractors who are prepared to take advantage of the opportunity will see a significant return on the investment needed. It costs virtually nothing to investigate. With a market that is estimated to be $3 billion annually, this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity is calling for your attention.

In Part 3 of this series, “Residential Fire Sprinklers: Plumbing Contractor Competitive Advantage #1”, Steven Scandaliato, SET, will discuss how the fire sprinkler industry has little experience in residential construction compared to the extensive experience and existing general contractor relationships that residential plumbing contractors have and how this creates a clear competitive advantage.

Residential Fire Sprinkler Requirements Coming Soon!

June 6th, 2009

Part 1 of a five part series focusing on the rapidly growing residential fire sprinkler market and why plumbing contractors are best positioned to capture this opportunity.

On September 21, 2008 the International Code Council (ICC) adopted amendment RB64-07/08 to the 2009 International Residential Code (IRC). This amendment mandates that beginning January 1, 2011 all new one and two family residential dwellings along with townhomes be equipped with fire sprinklers. Although the amended model code must ultimately be adopted at the state and local level, it is undisputable that the use of fire sprinklers for front line fire protection in residential structures will accelerate at a rate never before experienced. The timeline from now to the widespread adoption of the code is subject to debate, but given the fact that nationally over 400 local jurisdictions already have some level of single family sprinkler requirements in place, the momentum for mandatory residential fire sprinklers will certainly advance.

There is also no question that the passage of RB64-07/08 will accelerate the adoption of local residential requirements before 2011. The first comprehensive residential ordinance was adopted by the city of San Clemente, California 30 years ago. The growth of the single family residential fire sprinkler industry after that time was slow, but steady, with a noticeable increase in the last decade. Each ordinance was typically sponsored by local fire prevention officials and faced well financed opposition from the home builders lobby. However, with the most widely used model code in the world slated to require the installation of fire sprinklers in single family houses, the path for the adoption of a local residential ordinance now has the backing of the national code making community.

It is predicted by many in the industry that the number of communities specifying residential fire sprinklers in single family homes could double ahead of the IRC mandate in 2011. There is no doubt that strong opposition remains, but the passage of RB64-07/08 will make it difficult for jurisdictions to “amend” the requirement out of the code when it is adopted. The liability is high and public officials have little appetite for the potential risk that will come with the first fire death that occurs in an unsprinklered home that otherwise would have been protected as required in the IRC. As a result of these factors and the clear groundswell of support, the resolve of those opposed to residential fire sprinklers is weakening. Many home builders are now turning their attention to the task of how best to incorporate fire sprinklers into their marketing strategies and construction practices.

The impact on the fire protection industry will be profound. Using the number of housing starts and residential fire sprinklers sold for 2007, the current market size for sprinklered single family homes is placed between $90 and 100 million annually. The numbers are certainly noteworthy, but miniscule compared with the market potential. Based on HUD data, the 40 year average (through 2007) of single family houses built is 1.169 million units a year. The average size of a single family home constructed in 2007 was 2479 ft². When coupled with a conservative national installation cost of $1.00 per ft², the market value is a staggering $2.9 billion. When measured in terms of sprinklers, it is estimated that when the requirement is fully implemented, over 29 million fire sprinklers will be installed annually in single family homes.

Residential Fire Sprinkler Market

The impact on the existing market size is huge. Up until the last few decades, fire protection requirements have been centered on property protection in commercial buildings. With the introduction of fast response fire sprinklers in the 1980’s, requirements have been extended to multi-unit residential occupancies, with a particular focus towards multi-story buildings. As a result of the small market, single family residential fire sprinklers have typically been the domain of a few specialized contractors.

The coming mandate for residential fire sprinklers in single family homes will change the look of the industry. Once the 2009 IRC is implemented, residential fire sprinklers will account for nearly half the fire sprinkler market. There are simply not enough qualified contractors, design technicians, and installers to meet the coming demand. The opportunity for growing your business is enormous and those contractors who are prepared have that once in a lifetime chance to transform their business. The numbers of contractors specializing in residential fire sprinklers must expand. The market will demand it and it is clear that plumbing contractors are in the best position to absorb this growth. Don’t procrastinate on investigating this opportunity. It is too good to ignore.

In Part 2 of this series, “Plumbing Contractors Needed for Residential Fire Sprinkler Work”, Russ Leavitt will discuss how a labor shortage in the fire sprinkler industry creates a critical need for plumbing labor, including an overview of the common “barriers to entry” that plumbing contractors need to consider when preparing to provide residential fire sprinkler services.

New Report Analyzing the Residential Fire Sprinkler Market Potential Released

September 22nd, 2008

Residential Fire Sprinklers Market Growth and Labor Demand AnalysisIn response to the passing of code proposal RB64-07/08 with public comment #2 to the International Residential Code (IRC), I have authored a report with contributions from Steven Scandaliato, SET, and Ryan J. Smith, to provide a residential fire sprinkler market analysis that projects the market potential and labor demand created by the eventual widespread enforcement of these code changes.

There’s no question that the recent passing of residential fire sprinkler requirements to the International Residential Code will change the industry in a breath and timeline never experienced before. How the industry responds to the need for additional skilled labor will determine how quickly this market potential can be fully realized.

I invite you to read the Residential Fire Sprinkler Market Growth and Labor Demand Analysis. This report, published by Fire Smarts LLC, is available for free download at www.ResidentialFireSprinklers.com .

Download the Residential Fire Sprinklers Market Growth and Labor Demand Analysis Report .