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L.A.'s Sprinkler Rule: All Wet

A case study in overflowing, irrational regulation

ON Sept. 14, Los Angeles County Supervisors will probably decide to require fire sprinklers in all new and significantly remodeled houses in the fire-prone areas of Los Angeles County. The measure will no doubt sail through, and it is likely to be copied across the country. Who could oppose fire sprinklers, after all? Aren't they a simple and effective way to save lives?

Well, they could be, but they aren't. The problem is that current installation standards are so restrictive and expensive that fire sprinklers are probably not worth the cost.

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For a new home, officials estimate a cost of about $1.50 per square foot. But oh, what those official estimates leave out!

I'm in the process of building a house right now. Here's my experience with County-mandated fire sprinklers:

First, you pay $400 to $700 for a licensed designer to draw sprinkler plans.

On these plans you will notice that the main water supply pipe has to be something like 1-1/2 to 2 inches. Is your meter only 1 inch? Well, go buy another one. That will be $5,000 please. (I embellished that last sentence. Government officials hardly ever say "please.")

Codes dictate size of pipe

Why such a big pipe? The answer is that the folks who write fire codes want you to have enough pressure to run every sprinkler at once.

Forgive me for wondering just what kind of fire we are talking about here. Almost all house fires start small - small enough to be extinguished by one sprinkler, which could be supplied by an inexpensive 3/4-inch pipe. But of course the code writers figure that somewhere, sometime, there might be a house fire that requires a 2-inch pipe. Since they're not the ones who have to pay for that pipe, why not make the system fail-safe?

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Fail-safe systems

No one pretends that fire sprinklers are fail-safe. They cannot stop the kind of fires that burned houses in Oakland or Laguna, so these "fail safe" systems would be neither necessary nor helpful in that kind of fire.

My house, as it happens, is supplied by a well, so in addition to the installation costs, there's another $2,000 or so for tanks and pumps. Do my over-built fire sprinklers make me feel any safer? No. I know perfectly well that in a fire my electricity will be the first thing to go. Bye bye sprinklers. In an earthquake, water and electricity could go out for everyone, so why all the effort to install fail-safe systems in the first place?

One more thing: The pipes connecting my sprinklers must be copper or other fireproof material. I could install PVC pipe for about one-quarter of the cost of copper. It's not allowed, of course, because it would melt at high temperatures, thus leaking water all over the fire, heaven forbid.

Never mind that the pipe is protected by drywall. Why should the code-writers allow a low-cost solution when they don't have to pay the cost?

Have you ever walked through an open concrete parking garage and noticed the fire sprinklers? You might wonder, as I do, just what those sprinklers are for. The whole place is concrete, after all. It would make about as much sense to require fire sprinklers on freeways.

There are plenty of people who will listen to my arguments and say, "If it saves one life, it's worth it." The problems with that argument is that there are cheaper ways to save lives.

A few years ago, for example, economists estimated that smoke detectors save lives at a cost of about $50,000 per life. I don't know what fire sprinklers cost per life saved, but $5 million seems reasonable. So let's say this figure is right. Before government officials start patting themselves on the back for saving one life for $5 million, they should think about the hundred-or-so lives that could have been saved by spending that money more productively - like on county hospitals.

Risky, but not worth cost

You might remember a few years back when a state office building in Los Angeles caught fire. A couple of floors were destroyed, but no workers were in the building at the time. Fire chief Manning made a point of saying that fire sprinklers could have prevented the fire.

However, state office buildings don't have to follow local codes. The state decided, in spite of the risk, that fire sprinklers were not worth the cost.

If the government makes that choice, why won't it allow its citizens the same freedom?

Doesn't Los Angeles County have better things to do than protecting us from ourselves at our expense?

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