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Residential Fire Sprinkler Systems – Now What?

October 17th, 2009

As featured in Plumbing Systems & Design Magazine, September 2009

It would be hard to believe that anyone who takes the time and makes the effort to stay abreast of events affecting their industry would not be aware of the monumental changes regarding the next edition of the International Residential Code (IRC) and fire sprinkler systems. However, just in case you accidentally picked up this magazine thinking it was Sports I Illustrated or you are in the waiting room of your doctor’s office and must choose between this magazine and Psychology Today, let me fill you in because you are already behind.

In September 2008, the IRC committee voted to include a new provision that requires single-family homes to be sprinklered. This, of course, has been the topic of articles, seminars, reports, and state legislation ever since, and through it all one thing is for sure: The installation of fire sprinkler systems in residential occupancies is here to stay. Challenges and amendments may have some impact initially, but I have learned one main thing during many years of being involved in the code-making process. Once something makes it into the book, it is very difficult to get it out, and with each edition that it remains, it becomes like curing concrete: The longer it sets, the stronger and more unmovable it will be.

YOUR OPTIONS
Now that this requirement is here, the question must be asked: “What are you going to do about it?”

You have a few options. The first is to ignore it and go on with business as usual—that is, if you still have a business. Let’s face it: With the economy shrinking like it has, the level of competition for the few available projects is very high, and many of us have experienced downsizing in one way or another. In fact, most of us are working to stay in business, much less thinking about growing one.

The second option is to recognize that while the construction market is smaller, an entirely new vertical has been opened. It is this option that presents a “glass half full” opportunity.

It has been reported that this new residential sprinkler market could conservatively create revenues more than $3 billion annually (see “Residential Fire Sprinkler Market Analysis“. That’s billion, with a B. It also is well documented that the fire protection industry will be strained to meet this demand as this new requirement grows by adoption.

The design and installation of residential fire sprinkler systems is not new to the fire protection industry, but it is new to the plumbing industry, which includes engineers as well as contractors. Who better to relieve that strain than those already familiar with residential construction and most of the materials associated with these types of systems but the plumbing industry? While residential fire sprinkler systems are not as complicated as commercial systems, there are major differences in the design approach as well as some of the equipment used. If this second option has sparked your interest and you have the energy to pursue something that may take time and some investment to master, I would encourage you to read on.

The rewards are plenty, but it will not be easy.

A LITTLE BACKGROUND
In brief, the history of residential fire sprinkler systems starts around 1930, but it did not really become formal until the 1950s and early 1960s. This was due predominately to the development of a new installation standard and, soon after that, the emergence of several new types of sprinkler technologies responding to the growing concern over residential fire loss. Manufacturers and contractors alike began to envision the immense benefits that these systems would provide toward alleviating the ongoing tragedy of human loss due to residential fires. Money and market share took it from there.

One of the first milestones identified during these early events was the development of an installation standard, similar to the commercial standard for installation, called NFPA 13: Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems. Along the course of the standard development, creators recognized that the two major occupancy groups already established in the building codes would have to be addressed. These two groups are single-family and multifamily.

As such, we ended up with two installation standards. They were conveniently named NFPA 13D: Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems in One- and Two family Dwellings and Manufactured Homes and NFPA 13R: Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems in Residential Occupancies Up to and Including Four Stories in Height. Once these standards became available, the adoption process began, which lead to the historic September 2008 vote.

HOW DOES RESIDENTIAL SPRINKLER SYSTEM DESIGN DIFFER FROM COMMERCIAL?
Having these two standards in hand, you easily could conclude just by looking at them that together their thickness is not more than the single Chapter 8 of NFPA 13. Do not let that fool you. There are significant differences in the approach of residential design compared to commercial. Equally significant is the difference between NFPA 13D and NFPA 13R. It is these differences that need the most press and should be the starting point for anyone who is interested in learning more about residential fire sprinkler system design and installation.

Let’s start by focusing on NFPA 13D.

figure1_sprinklers

SPRINKLER HEAD LAYOUT
First and arguably the most important aspect of residential fire sprinkler systems, aside from water supply, is sprinkler head layout. Hundreds of different types of residential sprinklers are available today (see Figure 1), each with their own specific characteristics, including orientation, temperature rating, spray pattern, and minimum water and pressure demands. In fact, one of the most time-consuming tasks of residential design is finding the right head for the right application.

You easily can end up with four, five, or even more different types of heads in one home. Hence, you easily could spend as much as 50 percent of your design time just getting the sprinkler heads laid out.

That said, a closer look at what this process involves would be helpful.

One concept to understand in residential sprinkler head layout is the philosophy or goal behind the rules in the standard. What are we trying to accomplish? Commercial systems have a spectrum type of philosophy, if you will, spanning from life safety to property protection as its goal. Depending on the occupancy type, the goal may weigh more toward life safety than property protection or vice versa.

That’s not so in residential design. The goal for residential design is one thing and one thing only: life safety! The standards are written around the goal of giving people enough time to get out. While residential sprinkler system statistics conclusively prove that sprinklers provide a high level of property protection, the truth is that we do not care about the dwelling.

The rules and standards in NFPA 13D and NFPA 13R are based on the concept of sprinkler heads activating early in the fire growth, providing wall wetting and air cooling for 10 minutes (the required water supply duration) such that the rooms are tenable enough for evacuation. If this is the goal, it is obvious why the sprinkler head type, spacing, and location are so critical. This cannot be emphasized enough. You may find a sprinkler head that fits your needs on the very first cut sheet you open, but 28 years of experience tells me that this rarely happens. When it does, I am very skeptical about running off with my first choice without researching others just to make sure.

Another concept of residential sprinkler layout involves understanding the part that orientation and application play. As I stated earlier, there are hundreds of heads to choose from, so selecting the right one for the job means you first need to evaluate the space you are protecting. You will need to answer questions such as:

• Is the ceiling flat or sloped and if so, at what pitch?

• Are there any soffits, pockets, or other ceiling configurations that would inhibit the goal of early activation with high spray patterns?

Answering these questions will narrow your selection of sprinkler heads very quickly.

The process of laying out sprinkler heads involves a mix of rules from the standard, either NFPA 13D or NFPA 13R, and those found in the manufacturer’s data. Most of the time the manufacturer’s data supersedes the minimum requirements in the applicable standard, which is acceptable in that every NFPA standard includes in it an equivalency clause such as this: “Nothing in this standard is intended to prevent the use of systems, methods, or devices of equivalent or superior quality, strength, fire resistance, effectiveness, durability, and safety over those prescribed by this standard. Technical documentation shall be submitted to the authority having jurisdiction to demonstrate equivalency. The system, method, or device shall be approved for the intended purpose by the authority having jurisdiction.”

The challenge then becomes to accurately locate the sprinkler heads in accordance with the manufacturer’s requirements as well as any applicable minimums found in the standard. The effort required for this process is dictated by the complexity of the space.

As mentioned before, several factors determine the final location for a sprinkler head, and the designer must be familiar with these.

figure2_layout

For example, let’s evaluate a simple layout in a single-family, single-story home using NFPA 13D. Figures 2 and 3 represent identical floor plans with two different head layouts. Both are in accordance with manufacturer’s data and NFPA 13D.

figure3_layout2

Notice the difference in head types as well as the head count.

System economics is driven predominately by head count. However, do not take this to mean that less heads always means less expensive.

Depending on the type of construction, the labor to pipe Figure 2 easily may offset the cost associated with the difference in head count shown in Figure 3. Keep in mind that these two layouts are based on flat ceilings, no ceiling fans or light fixtures, no soffits or coffered ceilings, control over the locations of heat vents, and geographically located in the southern half of the United States where freezing conditions are not an issue. Certainly it appears easy just looking at the finished layout, but all it takes is one or more of those previously mentioned conditions to exist for the layout to change drastically.

Also included in this head layout process are the rules involving the rooms or spaces requiring and, more importantly, not requiring sprinkler head coverage. Dealing with exceptions in codes and standards is always a challenge because the shades of gray show up.

This is usually not as prevalent in single-family, NFPA 13D systems as it is in NFPA 13R and NFPA 13 systems; however, where there is an architect, there is always more than just black and white. Along with the exceptions to coverage are those construction or architectural features that neither the standard nor the manufacturer addresses, and contrary to popular thinking, this is not more common in custom homes than tract housing. These types of situations make head layout very challenging and require assistance from those more familiar with the industry and developed resources such as fire protection engineers and manufacturer technical service departments.

RESIDENTIAL SPRINKLER HEAD LAYOUT IS AN ART
It can be mastered by anyone who has desire to learn. The better your understanding and working knowledge of residential construction techniques and materials, the more proficient you will be. I would encourage anyone interested in pursuing this industry to first purchase a copy of NFPA 13D and NFPA 13R. Second, find online resources including blogs and sprinkler industry articles, webinars, and books that will help you grow in your understanding and knowledge of residential sprinkler design and installation. Third, and probably the most important, is to join the sprinkler industry associations.

sprinkler_resources

I have very little patience with and am skeptical of anyone, no matter how long you have been designing or installing toilets and sinks, who is going to get into this industry and not take it seriously.

This goes for engineers and contractors alike. Fire sprinklers are not something with which you dabble. I am very critical when it comes to engineers practicing outside of their discipline and contractors who think that pipe and water is all that there is to it!

If you have decided to participate in this growing industry and work for a piece of this huge pie, then welcome, but do it right! Getting involved in an association is one way of ensuring your success in this new venture. These associations are stocked full of resources and technical staffs who are looking for ways to help you do just that.

In my next article I will compare the two residential standards, NFPA 13D and NFPA 13R, and highlight the major differences between them.

Steven Scandaliato is a Fire Smarts Faculty member and Principal at SDG, LLC, a fire protection design and consulting company. With over 23 years of fire protection engineering, design and project management experience he holds a Level IV certification from NICET in Fire Sprinkler Layout and serves as a member of the NFPA 13, 101 and 5000 committees.

Residential Fire Sprinklers: Plumbing Contractor Competitive Advantage #2

October 5th, 2009

Part four 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 three of the series visit “Residential Fire Sprinklers: Plumbing Contractor Competitive Advantage #1

When the 2009 International Residential Code (IRC) arrives, with it will be the highly publicized requirement for all single family homes to have fire sprinkler systems installed in them. Previously we discussed the market and individual growth potential for residential plumbing contractors this new code will create. If we have convinced you, a residential plumbing contractor, that in fact, this opportunity is viable; the question now is, what next? Certainly questions of capital, resources, training and tools all fill the list. But, if you are like me, you are asking, “How do I sell this?” How do I convince my existing homebuilding client that, not only am I capable of providing both services, but it will be less expensive than two separate contractors doing the work?

To start with, let’s admit that most everyone would agree that it should cost less to get everything you need from one source, rather than to get only one thing you need from one source at a time. A quick glance at the popularity and success of big retail such as Wal-Mart or Best Buy will validate that. And while it may seem obvious that bundling services is cheaper than buying them separately, it is harder to distinguish this when the amounts that are being compared are relatively low. For instance, you normally don’t drive to a specialty battery store to buy AA batteries that cost $6.50 when you can get the same brand at the grocery store for approximately the same price or usually within a $1 while you are buying your groceries. The batteries at the battery store may even be less expensive (not likely, but possible) however, when the retail price of batteries is not that much to begin with, who is going to drive all over town to save a dollar. And while costs are always a strong part of decision making, the residual savings that you get by not spending the time to make the extra trip to the battery store will most likely outweigh the cost difference between the two stores supplying the batteries. Not to mention the convenience and stress reduction of having one more item off your “to do” list.

Now equate this example with those contractors vying for the installation of a residential fire sprinkler system. You have the fire protection contractor acting as the specialty store and the plumbing contractor acting as the “all in one” store. If an average tract home is 2500 square feet and the higher end of installed costs for a fire sprinkler system are $1.50 square foot, the installed cost would be $3,750. If the average sales price for this size tract house falls into the mid $200 thousands the fire sprinkler system would represent approximately 2% of the cost. The question is “can a plumbing contractor provide this system for less than a fire protection contractor?” While geographic factors such as unions will skew the numbers somewhat, it would be safe to answer this question with a resounding “yes”. The first and most obvious reason is the combination or overlapping of insurance, tools and resources. It would be very difficult to compete with a workforce that is trained to install toilets and sinks as well as risers and fire sprinklers, especially when many of the tools and materials used are the same. A second factor that would make this option even more definite would be if the fire sprinkler system is a multipurpose or combined type system. Meaning a system of valves and piping that feeds both domestic and fire sprinkler demand all together. The reduction in coordination issues alone would make this a very attractive choice for any home builder.

The third and not so obvious reason would reflect the nature of tract housing itself. Tract housing is all about volume and typical construction. I have termed it RPTV which stands for “Residual Profit on Typical Volume”. This represents profit that is not readily measurable, but is made as the result of “production line” thinking. It could be characterized as savings made from repetitive activities that require very little effort on your part or that of your clients. It can apply to the services you currently provide for your tract home builder, but can also apply to his services as well. The typical nature of this type of construction produces less and less supervision with each home built. I can attest to this first hand. While growing up in the homebuilding industry I experienced the transformation of our family business from tract housing to full custom homes. Without diverting into a dissertation on the differences, suffice it to say, it can be summed up in one word… Volume.

Let’s say the average cost of the plumbing contract for our 2,500 square foot tract home is $15,000 and the fire sprinkler system is $3,750. The total cost for each service without profit is $18,750. If both the plumbing contractor and the fire sprinkler contractor apply a 10% markup, the total price to the client is $20,625. Now, if you are a plumbing contractor providing both services it would be reasonable to expect your price to be at least 2% lower than this as your fixed expenses are now spread over a larger amount of revenue. This would put your sell price at approximately $20,210 which is a savings of roughly $415 to the client per house. Now, consider that your 10% profit per house should actually increase as your crews become more and more proficient with the installation of both systems, along with savings on bulk materials. When you multiply that profit over a couple of hundred homes a year the decision to expand your services to include fire sprinkler systems becomes much easier.

Do not forget, just like everyone else in the construction industry, home builders are looking for ways to do more or get more with the same amount. And if they do agree to pay more money it has to be towards something that they know will help them stand out from their competition. Tract home pricing is very competitive with margins averaging 8% to 10% at best. So other marketing tools are used. Usually these types of things come in the form of “buyer options”. This is where the buyer of the home may want to add certain options to the basic home he is buying such as a refrigerator, washer/dryer or upgraded carpet. The big difference is that these options are not “required” by codes or standards. The fire sprinkler system, on the other hand, is required by code and therefore is a hard cost that the home builder must account for. While he is looking for “bang for the buck” he is equally looking for companies that are going to make his life easier. Meaning, fewer coordination issues, no more sub-contractors than what he is already working with and someone who is managing their work without his supervision. By using an “all in one” plumbing contractor for both services he eliminates one more company he has to go into contract with, he needs only one phone number to deal with issues for either system, and there are fewer invoices to process, which keeps his overhead from increasing.

Trust me when I tell you, home builders put a high price on their time and how it is spent. They don’t want to deal with coordination problems or issues regarding permits or scheduling conflicts. They just want it done, on time, on budget and with attention to the same quality expected in custom home building. Home builders today are looking for every advantage they can find to either lower costs or provide more value for the same price. If domestic plumbing and fire sprinkler services are packaged up by a single source contractor, they will take a long hard look at the single source price. With a competitive price and the reduction of administrative expenses, there is real value to the home builder in getting there plumbing and fire sprinkler systems from the same “store”. Show the home builder how this works for them with the pricing in your own neighborhood and I am confident you will be successful as a single source provider.

In Part 5 of this series, “Residential Fire Sprinklers: Plumbing Contractor Competitive Advantage #3”, Jayson Drake, will discuss why multipurpose systems are the future of residential fire sprinklers, why plumbing contractors are uniquely qualified to install these systems and how this creates a clear competitive advantage.

Steven Scandaliato is a Fire Smarts Faculty member and Principal at SDG, LLC, a fire protection design and consulting company. With over 23 years of fire protection engineering, design and project management experience he holds a Level IV certification from NICET in Fire Sprinkler Layout and serves as a member of the NFPA 13, 101 and 5000 committees.