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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.

Fire Protection: 30 Years Back and 30 Years Ahead

June 24th, 2008

There have been numerous changes in the past 30 years that centered on advances in technology. Manual hydraulics gave way to computer generated hydraulics; drawing boards and triangles turned to CAD. Design criteria choices expanded on the advances in sprinkler applications such as residential, ESFR, extended coverage, and special applications. However, I want to focus on how the “business” of contracting has changed in the past 30 years and what we may see in the next 30.

Labor

30 years ago virtually all fire sprinkler work with the exception of system layout was performed utilizing organized labor. In the 1980’s, the construction industry began an evolution to open shop that resulted in unprecedented growth in work performed by non-signatory companies. All regions of the country now have a strong open shop presence. Of course, all change has consequences. One benefit of organized labor is the training received through the apprenticeship process. The migration to an open shop environment placed a great responsibility on the non-signatory firms to train. This need for training was the main driver in the formation of the American Fire Sprinkler Association (AFSA). However, far too few open shop contractors take advantage of the tools available. Recruiting, training, and retaining qualified field technicians is on of the biggest challenge facing the fire sprinkler industry today.

The next 30 years may bring a whole new look as well as a return to the past. Moving from unskilled to skilled labor in the construction industry has long been a path for upward economic movement. Many of our parents and grandparents are proof of this. This movement continues today and is particularly evident with our immigrant population. The move from unskilled to skilled labor by first and second generation immigrants is especially strong in the Southwest and West regions and in the next 30 years will fill the entire country. The pipe fitter of the future will be second and third generation immigrants taking advantage of these good paying jobs which provide the foundation for solid middle class living. I am not making a judgment with this, just stating what I see. The return to the past could come as a resurgence of organized labor if the open shop portion of our industry does not do more to recruit, train, and retain qualified technicians. Business is dynamic and change always follows the needs.

Outsourcing

The trend to outsourcing has not escaped the fire sprinkler industry. Consider that 30 years ago virtually every fire sprinkler contractor had a fabrication shop. It was considered an essential component to be a successful company. Owners took great pride in the their shops and as welding became a prevalent part of the fabrication process much money was spent in designing good process lines, training welders, and investing in automatic machinery. However, many contractors came to view their shops as an “overhead eating machine” that must be constantly fed. It was and still is a challenge to keep a shop productive and cost effective. Outsourcing fabrication started in earnest in the early 1980’s and has experienced continuous growth. Today, the vast majority of contractors have little or no in-house fabrication capacity.

The outsourcing of sprinkler system layout (design) started a bit later but has accelerated in the last 20 years. Many small contractors in today’s environment outsource all design and even the largest contractors outsource to some degree. The reasons are varied but as with fabrication, there is a movement towards keeping fixed overhead costs to a minimum. The shortage of qualified fire sprinkler layout technicians, the increasing requirements for Professional Engineering oversight by some jurisdictions, and the ongoing investment in ever changing technology have also influenced many contractors to outsource the design and layout of sprinkler systems.

The next 30 years will see a continuation of this trend. In fact, we may see the day in the not too distant future when our industry is dominated by companies who outsource all operational functions. You may think not, but consider this–it was not long ago that General Contractors actually “built” projects using in-house labor and equipment. However, today, nearly all General Contractors simply manage the construction. Could it happen in fire protection? The future may bring a fire sprinkler industry made up of a relatively small number of managing firms outsourcing their fabrication, design, and installation labor to others specializing in each of these areas.

Maintenance and Service

30 years ago, sprinkler maintenance was not governed by a national standard. NFPA only published recommended practices (NFPA 13A) regarding sprinkler system maintenance. Most service and maintenance was reactive in nature and the majority of regular scheduled service performed was driven by the insurance industry to manage risk. The publication of NFPA 25 served notice that things were going to change, but the change was slower than expected. However, coupled with an ever increasing number of protected structures, the increased awareness of systems, and the greater focus on corporate governance regard risk we are seeing an accelerated growth of the inspection, testing, and maintenance market. The increasing number of jurisdictions enforcing the requirements of NFPA 25 and the adoption of laws calling for the certification and licensing of inspectors, maintenance and service is becoming a serious area of investment for many contractors. I do not see this trend slowing.

The next 30 years will bring a tremendous expansion in this market. The industry will see an increased number of companies dedicated to this service alone. Service and maintenance will be the catalyst for growth and the consolidation of our industry. In addition, I believe the ongoing reputation and success of our industry may be largely influenced by the care and maintenance of these systems. With the ever increasing number of sprinkler systems and as these systems age, failure rates will be watch closely. Without good maintenance, our industry runs the risk of a tainted public view the cost/ benefit of installing sprinkler systems. Big opportunity for our industry—big risk as well.

Consolidation

The consolidation of our industry is an interesting subject. 30 years ago, the fire sprinkler industry was dominated by a small number of large national and regional firms. Firms such Automatic, Viking, and Grinnell had the bandwidth to recruit, train, and develop professionals. Even today, most of the senior members of our industry can trace their roots to one of these large organizations. However, with the advent of broader sprinkler use and applications the number of sprinkler companies grew and with the open shop movement, the numbers soared. Today our industry is dominated by the “boutique” contractor.

However, we are seeing an active consolidation movement taking place. Our industry has been “hot” in the investment community for a decade. Investment firms are buying and consolidating companies to develop a national footprint. Large service companies such as Cintas have acquired a number of fire protection contractors to add to their stable of services. Much of this expansion is geared towards the service and maintenance opportunities but system installation also plays a part. Investors see the huge residential market exploding with the seemingly inevitable adoption of universal sprinkler requirements by the codes.

The next 30 years will see the emergence of a growing number of mega-companies whose focus will be service and maintenance. With the challenges of recruiting, training, and retaining, it may take large mega-companies with the capacity of making the required investment to supply our industry with the need numbers of skilled technicians. There will always be a place for the well run boutique, but I have no doubt that our industry will see a large “reconsolidation” on a national level.

There are lots of evolving and unforeseen circumstances that make any prediction fraught with uncertainty and these predictions are simply my “take on things”, but I believe one thing is certain. Our industry will continue to grow because we deliver a product that “means something.” I am proud to deliver products and services that contribute in meaningful ways to our way of life. It has been a great and exciting run for the past 30 years and the future will bring no less.