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.

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