At-Home Safety: Online Tool Sparks Better Fire Sprinkler Decisions

For the builder or buyer of a new home, the decision of whether or not to install a fire sprinkler can be complicated, particularly if you’re not already an expert on the matter. A free National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) online tool helps make that decision a little easier by examining the costs and benefits associated with residential fire sprinklers.

According to NIST, while fewer than 5 percent of U.S. homes are equipped with fire suppression sprinklers, recent developments have moved the cost-benefit debate into the mainstream. The latest version of the International Residential Code calls for fire sprinklers to be installed in new one and two-family residential dwellings and townhouses starting Jan. 1, 2011. Some other model building codes follow suit.

More than 200 communities and a handful of states, including California, Maryland and South Carolina, have adopted the code. While Pennsylvania also adopted the code, the Pennsylvania. House of Representatives recently voted to repeal the mandate and sent the measure on to the state senate for its consideration. Debate and disagreement over proposed sprinkler ordinances have flared in other areas as well.

The NIST tool can help to inform these kinds of policy discussions and provide the means for comparisons of different installation scenarios.

Using the Tool

Users can input their own data to supply values for categories of costs and benefits in the model. They also can opt for a combination of user-defined data and national or local statistics. NIST developers mined the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS) to assemble national and city-level data on fire risk, fire fatality and injury rates, property loss and other figures of merit. NFIRS contains fire-related data for more than 1,300 cities.

By researching and supplying their own data on local sprinkler installation and maintenance costs, insurance premiums and credits, value of the house and contents, discount rates and other variables, users can get a realistic estimate of the cost-effectiveness of an investment in a sprinkler system. Local government officials contemplating whether to add the sprinkler requirement to their building codes can run analyses for a variety of house sizes to explore the benefit-cost performance of sprinkler systems in a community with a diversity of residential styles and sizes.

The tool was developed by information technology specialist Priya Lavappa and economist David Butry. It is based on the economic framework that Butry and other NIST researchers developed in their 2007 report, Benefit-Cost Analysis of Residential Fire Sprinkler Systems.

View the online tool at

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