After Grenfell Tower, Will Sprinklers Gain Greater Traction?
Originally published by: Plastics News — July 27, 2017
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In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott recently vetoed a bill that would have pushed the compliance date to retrofit some 5,600 older, taller condominiums with fire sprinklers or other enhanced safety systems back three years from 2019 to 2022.
Scott pointed to the tragic June 14 London high rise fire that killed at least 79 people as he blocked what would have been the third delay of a controversial safety regulation with an unknown price tag. It was originally set to go into effect in 2012.
In North Carolina, Alamance County officials announced June 19 that the price of permits pulled to build new houses would be cut in half if a fire sprinkler system is installed. The goal is to promote public safety, raise awareness about fire sprinklers, which are not required there, and defray costs for residents.
And, in Alabama, Gov. Kay Ivey signed a bill on July 6 that allows master plumbers with 32 hours of specialized training to install fire sprinkler systems in addition to commercial sprinkler contractors. Supporters say increasing the number of certified installers will create competition and bring down prices of the plastic tubing and pipe widely credited with saving lives and property. Opponents question what they consider a short training period.
Political debates about the need and cost of fire sprinklers, which are usually made of cross-linked polyethylene (PEX) tubing or chlorinated PVC (CPVC) pipes, have been flaring up in some parts of the country for years. The aftermath of the London fire is spurring some locales to action.
Built in 1974, the 120-unit Grenfell Tower had no central smoke alarms, no interior or exterior sprinkler systems, and only a single central staircase for residents — 350 by one count — to escape the raging inferno.
"Decisions regarding safety issues are critically important, as they can be the difference between life and death," Scott said in a statement about his veto.
About 200 firefighters and 40 fire engines responded to Grenfell Tower, rescuing about 65 people from the helmet-melting hot structure. It took about 24 hours to extinguish the engulfed block, and the death toll is expected to rise as more victims are identified. About 30 firefighters were injured, mostly from smoke inhalation.
"Fire sprinklers and enhanced life safety systems are particularly effective in improving the safety of occupants in high-rise buildings and ensure the greatest protection to the emergency responders who bravely conduct firefighting and rescue operations," Scott said. "While I am particularly sensitive to regulations that increase the cost of living, the recent London high-rise fire, which tragically took at least 79 lives, illustrates the importance of life safety protections."
Florida already had required fire sprinklers in condos built after 1994. With Scott's veto of the bill, Florida complexes built before 1994 that are taller than 75 feet also must meet the requirement by the end of 2019. Seniors on fixed incomes are worried about what it will cost them as condo associations are likely to tack on special assessments to cover the work.
By mandates and incentives, more jurisdictions are requiring and encouraging fire sprinklers.
Many market analysts forecast worldwide sales of fire safety systems market will grow at or near double-digit rates in the next five years. But their estimates about the size of the market vary widely.
For example, Technavio Research says the global fire detection and suppression systems market will grow at a rate of 10.82 percent annually to $7.74 billion in 2021. Stratistics MRS says the global fire sprinkler market will grow 10.2 percent a year and reach $16.24 billion by 2022. And a report by MarketsandMarkets says the fire protection systems market will hit $93.46 billion by 2022, following annual growth of 9.7 percent.
The discrepancy in market values is due to the different facets of the industry covered. The Technavio report is focused on fire sprinklers, extinguishers and smoke detectors, while the MarketsandMarkets report factors in emergency lighting systems, evacuation alerts, installation costs and fire mapping and analysis software.
Manufacturers have been seeing steady U.S. growth for their products since 2009, when that year's edition of the International Residential Code became the first to require fire sprinklers as a standard feature in new one- and two-family houses.
However, that's a provision state or local governments can amend out of their own codes. So far, the model code has only been adopted by the states of California and Maryland and by Washington D.C., according to the National Fire Protection Association. Seventeen states let cities decide whether to adopt it; and 31 states prohibit statewide and local adoptions of fire sprinkler requirements, saying the systems should be optional.
The local-control option allowed in 17 states has boded well for Uponor North America, according to Eric Skare, product manager for the Apple Valley. Minn.-based company, which makes PEX tubing for its AquaSafe fire sprinkler system.
With sales of $337 million for its plumbing, radiant heating and cooling and fire safety products, Uponor ranks No. 12th among pipe, profile and tubing producers in North America.
"Many states do allow local jurisdictions to set their own building code rules and requirements," Skare said. "Fortunately, many cities do recognize the importance of adopting the model code as written."
In Illinois, for example, about 100 communities have adopted ordinances for fire sprinklers, NFPA says.
AquaSafe is Uponor's smallest business segment, but Skare said it is outpacing the growth of the single-family housing market.
"I'll have to be somewhat vague, but I can tell you that our AquaSafe business has more than doubled over the last five years and is about three times larger than it was in 2009," he said.
The recovery of the housing market also has helped fire sprinkler sales. In some cases, it makes safety sense for new subdivisions built beyond the reach of the fire department and fast response times. In other cases, developers pitch the systems as a premium feature. Fire sprinklers buy time to escape house fires and keep fires contained until the first responders get to the scene.
"Some custom builders are offering it as an upgrade, like stainless steel appliances and granite countertops," said Kim Bliss, Uponor's technical communications manager.
In 2015, AquaSafe also was approved for exposed applications in unfinished basements, eliminating the need to use sheet rock on the ceiling as a barrier and making it easier to protect an entire home.
"That's kind of a game-changer for builders," Bliss said.
Tyco Fire Prevention Products, which is part of Johnson Controls, is another manufacturer of sprinkler systems. The company uses a CPVC compound for its Rapid Response brand. The Landsdale, Pa.-based business also works with contractors across the United States — called their "rapid response partners" — who help homebuilders lay out systems.
"They can procure the products and install it for them," said Trish Garges, a Tyco marketing services manager.
Tracy Moore, a Rapid Response contractor in the state of Washington, said about 22 cities there require fire sprinklers in new one- and two-family houses. He's also seeing other builders do it voluntarily.
"They're few and far between, but I'm making headway in my area," Moore said. "Some will do it carte blanche because they think it's a benefit to the homeowners, and there are statistics that say 78 percent of homeowners now agree they are a benefit. A few years ago, that was really low."
The cost factor
Moore said the average cost nationwide to install a fire sprinkler in a new home is $1.54 per square foot. It costs about $2 per square foot in his area of suburban Seattle, he added, and under $1 per square foot in some parts of California.
Uponor's Bliss said its AquaSafe systems are 1 to 2 percent of the total cost of the home.
"It combines with the home's cold-water plumbing system. A plumber can be trained to install it," she said.
Rapid Respones' multipurpose sprinkler system also uses the water circulating in the home plumbing system, which saves on supplier costs because one subcontractor can do both.
The condo owners in Florida aren't sure what it will cost to retrofit their buildings, but they are bracing for sticker shock. Pio Ieraci, president of the Galt Mile Community Association in Fort Lauderdale, which has 16,000 residents, estimated special assessments could cost $15,000 to $25,000 per owner.
"It's unconscionable and unbelievable," he told the Sun Sentinel. "The impact is huge."
In England, the British Automatic Fire Sprinkler Association commissioned a report on retrofitting apartments with fire sprinklers in 2012 that says Grenfell Tower flats could have been done for 1,150 pounds ($1,506) each, with tenants in place. That's less than 2 percent of the 10 million pounds ($13 million) spent on a 2016 renovation.
The tower fire started when a refrigerator malfunctioned in a fourth-floor unit. The flames spread quickly to the refurbished exterior and then were swept up it. Contractors had wrapped the structure with an insulating rigid polyisocyanurate foam for energy efficiency and covered that with a composite cladding of aluminum sheets with a polyethylene core instead of a fire-resistant core.
"If an automatic fire sprinkler system had been in place to intervene, the Grenfell Tower fire should never have reached the building exterior," Russ Fleming, managing director of the International Fire Sprinkler Association, said in a June 26 statement.
IFSA also notes that the tragedy prompted several places in the United Kingdom to announce plans to retrofit more than 275 public housing towers with fire sprinkler systems, including Birmingham, which has 213 tower blocks, and Croydon, Sheffield and Stoke-on-Trent, which have about 65 tower blocks combined.
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