Fire sprinklers
Tony Fleming of Metropolitan Fire Protection shows off his firms line of fire sprinkler systems Wednesday at the Atlantic Builders Convention in the Atlantic City Convention Center. Edward Lea

ATLANTIC CITY — A state mandate that fire sprinklers be built into every new home will be held off for another year due to poor economic conditions, the N.J. Fire Sprinkler Advisory Board said Wednesday at the Atlantic Builders Convention here.

The new regulations — largely unknown to the public and even some homebuilders — will require as of Jan. 1, 2012, that every room of a new home be protected by a fire sprinkler system.

The delay of the mandate to 2012 still must get approvals from the Department of Community Affairs commissioner and the governor, both of which are expected.

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Advocates of residential fire sprinklers, such as the industry’s advisory board, say the systems save lives and property, and should be required in new construction. Builders say they’re costly and the benefits are questionable enough to leave the decision to homeowners.

Kent Mezaros, of Quick Response Fire Protection in Manalapan, Monmouth County, and a member of the Sprinkler Advisory Board, told the builders convention that combining sprinklers with smoke detectors reduces the chance of a fire fatality by 82 percent.

He said the sprinkler mandate will result in a societal benefit of about $5,000 per home each year, most of which results from valuing the lives saved at $8 million each but also includes property saved and cheaper insurance.

George Spais, director of codes and services for the New Jersey Builders Association, doubts that homeowners will embrace sprinklers and said many are not familiar with them.

Spais said builders are mainly concerned with the cost of sprinkler systems — estimated by the Sprinkler Advisory Board at 2 percent to 4 percent of a New Jersey home’s total cost, or up to $10,000 on a $250,000 house.

“It should really be the choice of the homebuyers, whether they want to have it in their home or not,” Spais said.

Both sides agree sprinklers have an image problem, mainly based on the mistaken belief that they’ll respond to false alarms and all go off together, the way linked smoke alarms respond when food is burned in the kitchen.

“The important thing to remember with sprinkler heads in general is they’re not going to go off when smoke enters the room. They’re not going to go off like in the movies when the star pulls the lever, and they all go off, drenching the entire high rise,” said Mike Whalen of the state Department of Community Affairs. “These are heat-activated, and very rarely are you going to have a false activation.”

A homebuilder in Monmouth County asked what additional features a sprinkler system might need if the home is using well water rather than municipal water, which is common in many areas of southern New Jersey.

Whalen said that depending on the well pump and the availability of groundwater, the sprinkler system might need a tank storing as much as 300 gallons to ensure the sprinklers can supply water for seven to 10 minutes in a fire.

On the exhibit floor in Atlantic City Convention Center, Tyco Fire Suppression & Building Products of Lansdale, Pa., showed such a tank along with the pump, piping and sprinkler heads of a full system.

Sprinkler heads now are flat, 3-inch colored disks flush with the ceiling, rather than the unsightly metal protrusions of the past.

Darren Palmieri, product manager for Tyco, said he’s confident that homeowners will want sprinklers once they realize their reliability and start hearing about lives saved by them.

He cited an example this year from Warrington, Pa., — which has required sprinklers in new homes for 20 years — in which boys 6 and 9 were playing with a lamp on a bed, went downstairs for dinner, and the lamp tipped and set fire to the bed.

“They were having dinner and they said, ‘What’s that smell?’” Palmieri said. “They went upstairs and found the sprinkler had already put the fire out.”

But the sprinkler industry realizes it has more work to do educating and convincing homebuyers.

Tony Fleming of Metropolitan Fire Protection, which installed 2,200 sprinkler systems in southern Pennsylvania and Maryland last year, said, “Given a typical cost of $5,000 to $6,000, some buyers choose granite countertops instead of a life-safety system.”

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