In victory for builders, sprinkler systems in new VA homes will be optional

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Score one for the builders, at least for now. In the midst of a state-by-state battle over fire safety requirements, a panel in Virginia on Monday adopted interim language that essentially continues to makes installation of sprinkler systems optional, rather than mandatory, in all new single-family homes. The panel vote was 9-2 in favor of the status quo. However, the panel will continue the public hearing process before it formally votes on the matter some time next year.

The action follows a victory for firefighters last September, when a national fire safety and code writing organization — whose actions are typically adopted nationwide — endorsed a “model” code requiring installation of sprinkler systems in new homes starting in January 2011. While firefighters and the fire service industry call the measure a potential lifesaver, builders argue that it would provide little safety benefit, while increasing the cost of an average home from $5,000 to $10,000.

The code hasn’t yet been adopted by any state. State agencies in Pennsylvania and New Jersey have recommended adoption of the change, but builders in those states are threatening to take the battle to state legislatures. Last week a state committee in Michigan voted 10-2 to reject the new requirement. The building industry has succeeded in lobbying for prohibitive legislation in at least three other states — Idaho, North Dakota, and Texas.

While the Virginia Board of Housing and Community Development’s position is not expected to be finalized until next year, the interim language to be published calls for sprinklers only as a buyers’ option on new single-family residences. Regulations currently require sprinklers in all commercial buildings, apartments, and condominiums.

“The board affirmed its previous committee action to make residential sprinklers an option with specific installation standards if installed in Virginia,” said Hollie S. Cammarasana, spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development. “There was significant discussion about whether to mandate residential sprinklers and the board will continue to take comment and discuss this issue through the coming year before making a final decision on the regulation next year.”

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