High Costs Hamper Fire Sprinkler Retrofits

Nine firefighters died June 18 while battling a massive warehouse blaze in Charleston, S.C. Investigators discovered the Sofa Super Store warehouse wasn’t protected by a fire sprinkler system – nor was it required to be. The warehouse was built before building codes ordered installation of fire sprinkler systems; experts believe that an automatic sprinkler system could have contained the fire.

“This is a pretty dramatic example of what would not have happened if newer codes had been applied,” says Steve Muncy, president of the Dallas-based American Fire Sprinkler Association, a trade group for fire sprinkler contractors.

Like the Sofa Super Store warehouse, thousands of older commercial buildings around the country have been “grandfathered,” meaning they were constructed before sprinkler codes took effect and, therefore, aren’t required to have sprinkler systems. The South Carolina fire helped reinforce national awareness about the existence of “grandfather” clauses and the need for sprinkler upgrades. A “grandfather” clause generally refers to an exception allowing an old rule to continue applying to some existing situations while a new rule applies to all future situations.

Based on the National Fire Sprinkler Association’s estimates, the tab for retrofitting a 400,000 sq. ft. high-rise runs anywhere from $800,000 to $4 million. “There is no denying it is an expensive proposition to retrofit a building,” Muncy says. The Patterson, N.Y.-based National Fire Sprinkler Association is an industry trade group.

Muncy’s organization along with the National Fire Sprinkler Association, the Building Owners and Managers Association International (BOMA), the American Institute of Architects and the American Insurance Association support pending federal legislation encouraging sprinkler retrofits.

For years, one substantial obstacle has stood in the way of sprinkler retrofits: expenses. Experts say landlords find it hard to justify capital expenditures on equipment that will generate little, if any, extra revenue. But landlords do hold the advantage of obtaining insurance discounts if they install sprinklers. They also can tout their sprinkler-equipped properties as safe – a selling point that resonates with many tenants after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center demonstrated how an extreme fire can damage an office tower.

Retrofitting an existing high-rise with a sprinkler system costs about $2 to $3 per sq. ft., according to the National Fire Sprinkler Association. In some regions of the country, the cost can run as high as $10 per sq. ft, the association says. Muncy pegs the range at $5 to $15 per sq. ft. Labor accounts for about two-thirds of the price tag for a retrofit, according to the National Fire Sprinkler Association, while sprinkler systems for new buildings cost about $1 to $2 per sq. ft.

A federal report released in 2000 indicated that sprinklers “are acknowledged as the most effective tool in immediately suppressing fires, minimizing damage and saving lives.” The presence of sprinklers in a building reduces the chances of dying by 50% to 75%, and cuts the average property loss by 50% to 66%, according to the National Fire Sprinkler Association. In 2005, U.S. structure fires caused nearly $9.2 billion in direct damage, according to the Quincy, Mass.-based National Fire Protection Association.

Acknowledging that any loss of life in a building fire is tragic, Dave Johnston, director of codes and standards for BOMA, says: “Generally speaking, office buildings are tremendously safe, with or without sprinklers.”

Legislation reintroduced this year by U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Republican; U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith, an Oregon Republican; and U.S. Rep. Jim Langevin, a Rhode Island Democrat, would change the federal tax code so that the cost of installing a fire sprinkler system in an existing nonresidential structure could be depreciated over five years, rather than the current time – 39 years.

“Unfortunately, due to the high cost of installing these safety measures, property owners have faced tremendous financial burdens when considering the addition of sprinkler systems,” Langevin said in a March speech on the House floor.

Langevin spokeswoman Joy Fox says the congressman is optimistic about passage this year. “Sadly, tragedies like the one in South Carolina only make passing legislation such as the Fire Sprinkler Incentive Act that much more important. When there is a heightened awareness, people want to try to do more to prevent such tragedies in the future,” Fox says.

Muncy says he thinks the chances for passage of the tax legislation this year are as good as or better than they’ve been since Langevin first introduced the Fire Sprinkler Incentive Act in 2003. Karen Penafiel, BOMA’s assistant vice president of advocacy, says her organization supports the legislation but doesn’t share Langevin’s optimism that Congress will take action on it this year. Adhering to a “pay as you go” philosophy, the Democrat-controlled Congress is balking at tax incentive bills such as the ones addressing sprinkler upgrades, Penafiel says.

Meanwhile, buildings of all shapes, ages and sizes in the United States lack fire sprinkler systems, Muncy says. The basic technology of fire sprinkler systems hasn’t changed in more than 100 years, he says.

Automatic fire sprinklers are individually heat-activated and are tied into a network of piping with water under pressure. When heat from a fire raises the sprinkler temperature to about 165 degrees, a solder link will melt or a liquid-filled glass bulb will shatter to open a single sprinkler, releasing water directly over the source of the heat. Modern-day systems can put more water on a fire by concentrating the droplets in a specific pattern, Muncy says, or by sending it to a fire more quickly.

“Some of the scariest [situations] are high-rise buildings in urban areas that were built before the current codes that required sprinklers,” Muncy says. “A fire in one of those could be absolutely devastating.”

Some cities, counties and states have adopted ordinances mandating fire sprinkler systems for existing buildings. For instance, the city of Houston required in 2005 that sprinkler systems be installed throughout all mid-rise and high-rise buildings, but building owners have until 2009 to meet that requirement.

“Frankly,” Muncy says, “the retrofit ordinances are the exception rather than the rule.”

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