Controversial code for new homes takes effect in 2011

PAT FRIDGEN
Building code inspector Clem Malot monitors the installation of sprinkler systems, required in townhomes in 2010 and in single-family homes in 2011.

Pennsylvania residents building new homes in 2011 will install a feature rarely found in established houses. Sprinklers. A new law takes effect with the new year, to the chagrin of some and with the blessing of others.

The 2009 International Code Council set regulations which were adopted by the PA Department of Labor and Industry on Dec. 10, 2009. Now part of the state's Uniform Construction Code, one clause requires inhome sprinkler systems, with sprinkler heads in the ceiling of each room. If the temperature of any room reaches 180 degrees, that head will release water. The law calls for a flow of 300 gallons per 10 minutes, according to an inspector who has watched the issue with a vested interest for the past several years.

Clem Malot, chief building code official for Franklin County, operates Commonwealth Code Inspection Service in Chambersburg.  He reported to the Franklin County Council of Governments Sept. 15 that a last ditch effort by the Pennsylvania Builders Association to strike the requirement was denied by the state Supreme Court. Therefore sprinklers will be mandated in new homes, whether served by public or private water supplies. The only exemptions were manufactured homes, and renovations or additions to existing homes. The law applies to permits issued in 2011, and not to 2010 permits if construction has not yet commenced.

At the same meeting, Washington Township manager Mike Christopher cautioned the assembly that most lines entering homes were not large enough to carry that much water.

Reactions

Malot has encountered a number of people with opinions on the law as he goes about his business of inspecting construction projects. He said plumbers, who would be called to action, were just learning about the new systems.

Developers tended to find the requirement "onerous." Malot noted, "It's hard enough to sell a new home in the first place, without the added expense. It's tough, especially for first time homebuyers." He estimated the sprinklers would add $6,000 or more to the cost of an average single family home, but that would drop as plumbers gained more experience.

Some citizens had remarked the law moved the United States one step closer to communism, Malot said. Most residents offered negative feedback. Sprinklers were no longer an option, which was what bothered people the most.

And fire companies stood together on their assessment. "Almost to a one, fire departments are incredibly supportive of it," he said. "They see it as a life safety feature. Residential sprinklers are designed to protect life, not property."

Kevin Barnes, Greencastle Rescue Hose Company fire chief, supported the initiative, considering the cost worth it for the value received, including safety and peace of mind. Sprinklers could save property and limit damage as well, and had proven effectiveness in reducing fire deaths and injuries. He saw changes in building materials and furnishings as creating dangerous situations more rapidly than in the past.

"Sprinklers extinguish or at least inhibit this fire growth and flame spread, making it safer for both residents and first responders," he said.

Countering a common concern that the sprinkler would discharge without a fire, Malot said Letterkenny in Chambersburg had had sprinkling systems since the 1940s, and he never heard of any going off accidently unless they were damaged. He also acknowledged that they did save lives. He had unaware of a fire-related death with a water-based system in use. The spraying water was designed to allow people time to get out and prevent fire flashovers in the rooms. Flashovers occur when heat from flames causes combustible gases to ignite.

The effect on homeowners insurance also falls into the debate.

Ed Bell, owner of Bell Insurance, expected rates to drop compared to a home without a sprinkler system. That at least was the case with commercial properties with similar systems. And for unintended water flow, if that occurred and the policyholder had an endorsed protection clause, damage would be covered.

Inspections

Malot and CCIS work for the municipalities that hire them. The arrangement was facilitated by COG since most municipalities could not afford to staff their own inspector. Michael Cermack with Accredited Services in Waynesboro is the other third party inspection agency in the county. Both serve Greencastle and Antrim Township.

Malot emphasized that though people see him as a sounding board, he and his staff didn't write the code and were just charged with enforcing it. They get involved at the permit stage, making sure the hydraulic systems recorded on the plans are appropriate based on the water suply. He recommended a 300-gallon storage tank on a concrete slab in the basement or in an equipment closet on the main level, or there would be load problems in the structure.