It’s probably an appropriate time to weigh in on the on-going residential sprinkler situation.First, however, full disclosure. The Gypsum Association-my employer-currently has no formal position on whether sprinkler systems should or should not be installed in residential dwellings. 

It’s probably an appropriate time to weigh in on the on-going residential sprinkler situation.

First, however, full disclosure.

The Gypsum Association-my employer-currently has no formal position on whether sprinkler systems should or should not be installed in residential dwellings. As the person who has done most, if not all, of the code work for the Association since 1998, I have never provided public testimony addressing whether a residential sprinkler system should or should not be mandated in a dwelling, nor have I submitted a code proposal to add sprinkler systems to or eliminate sprinkler systems from residential dwellings.

We do, however, have a position on an issue related to residential sprinkler system installation-the rating of the wall that separates townhouse units-and we did submit a proposal on the issue during the just-concluded code hearings. The proposal did not address whether a sprinkler system should or should not be installed in a residential dwelling.

And for clarity, the term “residential” means one- and two-family dwellings and townhouses three or fewer stories in height constructed to the International Residential Code. It does not include multi-story unit housing-apartment buildings or dormitories-that is constructed to the International Building Code. Sprinkler requirements for multi-unit housing have been incorporated in the IBC for many years.


Prior to 2008, residential sprinkler systems were mandated in a handful of communities, most notably in Arizona and Maryland. In those areas, some local laws required the installation of a sprinkler system in all new single-family dwellings and townhomes.

In September 2008, during the International Code Council Final Action Code Hearings, a proposal to require sprinkler systems in houses and townhouses was approved and language mandating the installation of a sprinkler system in townhouses and one- and two-family dwellings was placed into the 2009 IRC. The effective date of the townhouse requirement was immediate upon adoption of the code by a jurisdiction. The one- and two-family dwelling requirement is effective January 1, 2011.

In making the case for incorporation of the language into the code, proponents cited the outstanding performance record of sprinkler systems and the data that show the systems save lives and prevent property damage. Opponents cited concerns about cost, reliability of the systems, and the mindset that views sprinkler systems as a panacea for all things safety-related.

In the end, the language passed and sprinkler systems were incorporated into the 2009 IRC.

The debate did not end in 2008, however, as the issue was revisited during the Code Change Hearings that were held in Baltimore in October and November 2009. During the hearings the language that was incorporated into the IRC in 2008 was reviewed. The public vote was overwhelmingly in favor of retaining the pro-sprinkler language.


The response to the sprinkler requirement has been mixed. Some states and jurisdictions have adopted the 2009 IRC with the new language unmodified and are in process of implementing the new requirements. Other localities, however, have been reticent to adopt the language and have elected to locally amend the 2009 IRC to eliminate the sprinkler mandate. Others simply have not adopted the 2009 IRC and have elected to continue to use a previous edition of the code.

One troubling aspect of the adoption and review process is that some jurisdictions have elected to modify the code by eliminating the sprinkler language; however, they have not simultaneously amended the hourly rating on the townhouse separation wall back to where it was before the new language was incorporated into the code. This creates a townhouse with no sprinklers and a one-hour common wall separating adjacent units-clearly not the intention of the original language change.

The primary concern of the association is the part of the sprinkler-related language placed in the 2009 IRC that reduced the rating on the wall that separates adjacent townhouse units from two hours to one hour. It is this modification to the code that the Gypsum Association has objected to via proposal and public comment. A proposal submitted by the association during the 2009 hearings to reinstate the two-hour rating was not approved.

The association’s concern is quite simple. Taken alone, the reduction in the wall rating is troubling (and even the most vocal advocates of sprinkler systems admit the systems do not work 100 percent of the time) but now the two-hour rating has vanished and townhouse units will be separated by a common one-hour wall that has no structural separation requirements. In short, if the sprinkler system fails and the fires overwhelm the internal structure of your neighbor’s townhouse, there is nothing to prevent the collapse of the unit next door from tearing down the common one-hour wall and leaving your townhouse vulnerable to a fire.

In response, sprinkler proponents make the case that sprinkler systems do work and cite an increasing volume of historical data to make their case. An August 2009 study, Prince George’s County 15-Year History with its Single-Family Residential Dwelling Fire Sprinkler Ordinance states:

“From the years 1992 to 2007, Prince George’s County recorded a total of 13,494 single family/townhouse fires and 245 of those were protected by fire sprinkler systems. In those 245 incidents, no deaths were recorded and only six injuries were reported. In the 13,249 fires that occurred in homes that were not protected by sprinklers, 101 residents were killed and 328 were injured. Fire deaths in residential dwellings made up 89 percent of the fire deaths in Prince George’s County during the years.”

Much has also been made of the approval process that placed the language in the code. The 2008 Final Action Hearing and the 2009 Code Committee Hearings were attended by a significant quantity of individuals who, politely stated, may not have previously attended or participated in a code hearing. One can draw his or her own conclusions from the gathering but it was unique to say the least.

The arguments pro and con are endless, and the jury is still out on whether the addition of sprinkler systems to residential dwellings will prove to be as beneficial as advertised. It’s a debate that is likely to continue well into the future. W&C