New Castle County is moving forward with a plan to require fire sprinklers in new home. (Pixabay photo from Pexels)

NCCo working to require fire sprinklers in new homes

Ken MammarellaGovernment, Headlines

New Castle County is moving forward with a plan to require fire sprinklers in new home. (Pixabay photo from Pexels)

New Castle County is moving forward with a plan to require fire sprinklers in new homes. Photo by Pixabay/Pexels

New Castle County is moving forward with a plan to require fire sprinklers in new townhouses and one- and two-family dwellings.

Its planing document cites lots of support, including the Delaware State Fire Marshal’s Office, the New Castle County Fire Chiefs Association, the New Castle County Firefighter’s Association, the New Castle County Fire and Ambulance Advisory Board, the Fire Sprinkler Coalition, the National Fire Protection Association and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

There’s one prominent opponent: the Builders and Remodelers Association of Delaware. A page on the association website, titled “balancing safety and affordability,” argues that the move will price “2,713 Delaware households out of the market” and that “smoke detectors are proven protection.”

The ordinance will be introduced at the Aug. 29 meeting of County Council’s land use committee, said Brian P. Cunningham, director of strategic communications for New Castle County Executive Matt Meyer. It would then be voted on at the Sept. 12 council meeting.

Fire sprinklers are one of 20 “significant changes” headed for a vote in the land use package, but it’s the only one that gets a “deep dive” in the county’s outreach document to explain the changes.

The 20-page document covers four recently updated codes from the International Code Council: the International Building Code, the International Residential Code, the International Existing Building Code and the International Swimming Pool and Spa Code. It also “recognizes” four international codes that have been adopted by the state: the mechanical, plumbing, fuel gas and energy conservation codes.

All the codes are from 2021. The energy conservation code is from 2018, with the “2021 version under review.”

The requirement for fire sprinklers would go into effect on Jan. 1, 2025. Al the other codes would go into effect on Jan. 1, 2024.

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The county and the builders’ association disagree on how much fire sprinklers would cost. The county document, for instance, hypothesizes examples costing $3,150 and $3,700. The association puts the cost at $8,000 to $10,000 in full-page ads published in the Sunday News Journal.

DelawareLive asked both how they came up with their figures.

The cost of sprinklers does not end at the settlement table,” the association says, listing six costs, including “additional monthly costs for separate water hookup.”

Some of the association’s points are rebutted by the county as myths.

For instance, the association cites “repairs to frozen or burst pipes.” The county: “With proper installation, sprinklers will not freeze.”

The association cites “water damage incurred by mistakenly activating a sprinkler system.” The county: “Leaks are rare, and are no more likely than leaks from a home’s plumbing system.”

The association: “The best ways to save the largest number of lives in the most cost-effective manner is to ensure the attainability of newer, safer homes and to educate owners of older homes on the importance of working smoke detectors.”

The county: “Smoke alarms are necessary devices that alert occupants to a fire, but do nothing to suppress a fire. In a fire, sprinklers can control and may even extinguish a fire in less time than it would take the fire department to arrive,” the county says.

They also disagree on the effect on insurance. The association cites “additional insurance coverage.” The county cites a “10% discount for sprinklers.”

Rules elsewhere on fire sprinklers

The association partly frames the issue as affordability for potential homeowners: “288,787 Delaware families cannot afford to buy a new home costing more than the median price of $470,721,” that association page says. “Mandating residential fire sprinklers in new single-family construction would price 2,713 Delaware households out of the market for a median-priced new home.”

Those dollar figures can also be framed another way: If potential homebuyers have a hard limit on what they will spend, they could choose not to buy other, potentially more lucrative features to pay for the sprinklers.

Or they could look harder at preowned homes. The average new home in America is 32% more expensive than the average preowned home, U.S. News reported last winter.

One more way: “Are they killing the housing market?” MyEasternShoreMD asked in 2015, when William Pickrum, president of the Kent County (Maryland) commission, said “a key to creating affordable housing would be elimination of the requirement for residential sprinkler systems.”

California was the first state to require fire sprinklers, the National Fire Protection Association wrote, and Maryland was the second.

The county says such systems are already required in Newark, Lewes, Milton, Seaford (townhouses) and Delaware City (townhouses). Sussex County Council voted in 2022 against the requirement.

Since 2017, Delaware builders are mandated to offer sprinkler systems as an option to their new construction customer,” that association page says. “In the last six years, four of the largest volume builders in New Castle County have built 4,169 homes and only seven customers have opted for sprinklers. That’s a take-rate of 0.17%.”

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