Help or harm? City of Kenai considering sprinklers as part of new building code

Posted: Monday, March 07, 2011

Should Kenai adopt a building code that requires one- and two-family homes to have sprinklers inside them?

It depends on whom you ask. To some, the code would be an infringement on individual rights and a measure that's guaranteed to inflate building costs. To others, it is simply a step that needs to be taken to keep people safe -- like smoke alarms just a few decades ago.

Ultimately, sprinklers are about saving lives, said James Baisden, a Nikiski fire chief and vice president of the Alaska State Firefighters Association.

"The people I've seen die in fires would probably be alive today," he said.

Council members, employees and residents of the city of Kenai met with interested parties from elsewhere in the state at a work session Thursday to talk about the code. But the discussion isn't over yet. The council won't see a resolution on the matter until the fall, and at least one member wants another work session for the public to weigh in on the matter.

Kenai Fire Chief Mike Tilly said the issue has been debated on a national and state level for the last several years.

"Now it's trickled down to our community," he said.

Baisden said it was time for the community to be talking about it.

"This community here needs to have this conversation," he said.

The issue has made its way to Kenai because of the 2009 International Residential Code. The city can adopt whatever portions of the code it chooses.

Larry Floyd, the building official for Kenai, recommended applying the code to new homes at a new address. Remodeled homes would not fall under the new regulation.

Tilly opened the meeting with basic information about sprinklers.

Newer, lighter construction can mean that fire spreads faster in modern homes, he said. Sprinklers are an attempt to keep people safe.

He cited studies that showed a 100 percent reduction in fatal fires in Scottsdale, Ariz., and Prince George County, Md., after sprinklers were required.

Tilly said that sprinkler systems are designed to go off when heat rises to a certain level in a room, usually about 165 degrees in a residential building. That means that the sprinklers will usually go off before someone could call 9-1-1 and get a fire crew headed toward their house.

No one in the crowd wanted to debate that point.

"There's no doubt, I don't believe, that sprinklers may put out a fire faster," said Paul Michelsohn, who traveled from Anchorage to share his perspective as a member of the Alaska State Home Building Association. But his association, and the Kenai Peninsula Builders Association, asked the community to consider what costs are associated with a mandate.

Jeff Twait, president of the Peninsula association, said his organization doesn't believe that people should be required to have the systems.

"Our position isn't that we're against sprinklers," he said. "We're against the mandating of them."

The cost to sprinkle a home was a contentious matter at the Thursday meeting.

Tilly said the cost was approximately between 38 cents and $3.66 per square foot, with an average price of about $2. That estimate came from Anchorage, and included parts and installation, but not necessarily any major changes to water systems or other incidental work.

"Those are our best estimates to go from," he said. "None of us are plumbers."

Floyd said that meant it would cost about $4,500 for parts and professional installation on a newly built house.

Twait said that any estimates should be taken as just that -- estimates.

Michelsohn said he had done installations that cost as much as $24,000 to $38,000.

And Twait said parts and labor alike will cost more if everyone is required to pay for them.

"As soon as it's mandated, the cost is going to go up," he said.

Floyd said that wasn't true. Statistically, the price goes down, he said, echoing testimony from an Anchorage sprinkler vendor who spoke before him and said that once systems are required, many more players try to get in the game, pushing the cost down.

Michelsohn and Twait both also talked about maintenance costs, and whether or not the city would need to inspect the systems to ensure proper maintenance.

Floyd said that the systems were pretty much stand-alone; once installed, they should be good to go. He added the city would not be inspecting the systems annually.

"There is no maintenance," Floyd said.

Tilly said the insurance savings depend on the company. State Farm told his department that it was about a 5 percent discount on home insurance, and the borough gives a 2 percent discount on a home's assessed value -- the number used to calculate property taxes -- for homes with sprinkler systems. Numbers from other insurance companies, including Allstate, were harder to come by.

"We never got a real hard number from them," Tilly said.

Twait said that the cost of insuring a $200,000 house is just $800, so a five percent savings isn't very significant.

There's more than just the monetary costs associated with the systems. Michelsohn said the systems can fail to let water into the sprinklers, letting the fire continue unabated. Also, he said there is risk of flooding a house.

But when there is a fire, Floyd said, the systems are worth the cost.

"Sprinkler systems will save more lives, plus they'll save your property, they'll save your house," he said.

Michelsohn suggested that the city focus its efforts on giving out batteries and encouraging people to have functional smoke alarms.

"Leave it optional," he said.

Council member Brian Gabriel asked if people actually install them when it's just an option.

Michelsohn said when he asks if people want the systems installed, he is rejected 98 percent of the time.

Baisden noted that mandating smoke alarms was similarly controversial. At the time, many home builders' associations were against the move.

Floyd said this was the most important building code change since that time.

"We have to be supportive of it and hope that it goes through," he said.

Local realtors also spoke up at the meeting, saying that adding to the cost of building or buying a new home would discourage people from moving to Kenai.

Dale Bagley, a Soldotna realtor, said that making homes more expensive is just a bad idea in the current economic climate.

"I think this is not the right thing to be doing right now," he said.

Realtor Stacie Kraus said her family wouldn't have built a home in Kenai had the code been in place a few years ago.

"I don't think it's OK to mandate this," she said.

Molly Dischner can be reached at

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