Mandatory sprinkler systems up for debate in Sussex County

Fire-suppression equipment currently not required in most residences

By Glenn Rolfe
Posted 5/6/22

GEORGETOWN — Will it be yes or no for mandatory sprinklers in new homes in Sussex County?

It is expected that automatic sprinkler systems for certain types of housing will spark the most discussion as the county moves to adopt the 2021 International Building Code and International Residential Code.

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Mandatory sprinkler systems up for debate in Sussex County

Fire-suppression equipment currently not required in most residences

Posted

GEORGETOWN — Will it be yes or no for mandatory sprinklers in new homes in Sussex County?

It is expected that automatic sprinkler systems for certain types of housing will spark the most discussion as the county moves to adopt the 2021 International Building Code and International Residential Code.

Factors like construction costs, water sources and a home’s water flow are chief among the concerns.

Introduced during County Council’s April 5 meeting, a proposed amendment to Chapter 52 of County Code would bring Sussex up to date with the codes, which are international regulations written every three years.

The county’s last update was in 2012.

The 2009, 2012, 2015, 2018 and 2021 editions of IRC, as well as the National Fire Protection Association’s Life Safety Code and NFPA’s Building Code, all require installation of fire sprinklers in new homes.

However, as was the case in its update 10 years ago, the county’s current proposal includes exemption of such sprinklers for one- and two-family dwellings and town houses.

The issue was most recently addressed March 8, during a presentation by Andy Wright, Sussex’s chief code official.

At that time, county attorney J. Everett Moore Jr. asked Mr. Wright if the exemption should continue.

“That is correct. (But) it would be up to the decision of the powers that be, yes,” said Mr. Wright. “When we did adopt the 2012 code, there was a recommendation from a workgroup that we had at the time, asking to exempt that. It has been questioned to keep the exemption for the single-family fire-suppression/sprinkler system.”

Under the proposed ordinance, where IRC and County Code conflict, the “provisions contained in the Sussex County Code shall control,” it reads.

The proposed update will go through a public hearing process to be announced.

County administrator Todd Lawson said the biggest issue surrounding the update “probably is going to be residential fire services and how we want to address that.”

Requiring automatic sprinklers would increase the cost to build new homes, and Mr. Wright said several builders confirmed that with him.

“One of them gave me a percentage of a 1% to 2% increase in the cost of construction for a sprinkler system. Another builder has given me the actual figure of the average 2,000-square-foot house. Depending on the water flow, it could increase it from $7,500 to $10,000 per home,” he said.

Issues to consider include the source of a residence’s water (private well or public system), the amount of water flow, the possible need for an additional or larger well and/or the compatible pump size needed for a suppression system.

“How many gallons per minute? What do we need?” said County Council vice president Doug Hudson. “I know I am getting in the weeds, but I think we need to have that ironed out.”

Sussex’s neighbor to the north, Kent County, also exempts the sprinkler requirement for one- and two-family residences. Kent is in the 2018 code version, which it updates on a six-year cycle.

“Yes, we have maintained an exemption to sprinklers for one- and two-family dwellings,” said Kent County planning director Sarah Keifer. “Our code says you ‘may’ install them. They don’t have to. And that is true for nearly every local government in the country. Rather than just strike it from the code when we adopted it, we simply inserted ‘may’ rather than ‘shall.’ You can do it. But you don’t have to.”

She continued, “Apartments, yes, you’ve got to do it. And that would go, more than likely, beyond even what the building code says. Very few jurisdictions require them for single-family.”

Sussex County Council president Michael Vincent suggested that leaders may wish to consider another working group to “look at this from all aspects.”

“Certainly, I don’t think anybody would disagree that residential fire sprinklers that are operational can save lives,” he said. “The question is, truly, what does it cost to install that in a home? What is the right answer? How much you are going to add on to the cost of a house?”

Councilman Vincent said more information needs to be gathered.

“It is one thing to have residential sprinklers when you are on public water. But when you have a well out in the middle of wherever, my question is, does it increase the size of the well you have to have because now you’ve got a sprinkler system? Does it increase the size of the pump you’ve got to have?” he said. “I’ve been in the fire service for 52 years, and I’m never going to say they are a bad idea. But it has a cost.

“I mean, I think anybody would say residential sprinklers are probably a good thing,” he said. “I think there are a lot of issues that we need to delve into.”