Minnesota enacts new piece of building code that will require fire sprinklers to be installed in new townhomes, single-family and duplex homes larger than 4,500 sq. ft.; code may be implemented by late fall, says building manager

FERGUS FALLS, Minnesota , February 14, 2014 () – A new piece of building code in the state of Minnesota will require fire sprinklers to be put into new townhomes, single-family and duplex homes that are larger than 4,500 square feet.

Administrative Law Judge Eric Lipman issued a ruling Feb. 7 that the Department of Labor Industry's adoption of the latest International Residential Code, the code for building new single-family and duplex homes, with a provision for residential fire sprinklers, was done legally and appropriately.

This adoption to the code, requiring fire sprinklers for the homes larger than 4,500 square feet, is different than the code as its written. The written code in the national level requires that all new homes, regardless of size, have fire sprinklers.

But in Minnesota, the code was amended to include the 4,500 square feet rule.

"We're going to start with, if your home is over 4,500 square feet, you'd have to sprinkler it," said Tom Brace, executive director of the Minnesota State Fire Chiefs Association. "We're moving in the right direction."

The Builder's Association of Minnesota argued against any fire sprinkler protection code requirements. The adoption ruling is a compromise, according to Fergus Falls Fire Chief Mark Hovland, who would have liked the code to include all new homes.

"It'd be nice to see, but I can also understand that they did go this way," he said.

Larger homes generate a larger fire load, and it becomes more dangerous for firefighters, according to Hovland, so with sprinklers, it increases the safety for firefighters, and hopefully they won't lose the house either.

This is just one piece of the code, so it won't take effect for awhile, according to Guy Taylor, Fergus Falls building manager. The entire code might be implemented by late fall across the state, so the sprinkler requirement likely won't affect anyone this year, Taylor said.

It likely wouldn't be a factor for many people locally either, since 4,500 square feet is such a large home.

"It maybe would affect one house a year," Taylor said. "But the cost for the requirement would probably be $10,000 to $12,000. So it's significant."

The Minnesota Fire Service Coalition supports the proposal and the judge's decision. Fire sprinkler systems can help when it comes to residential fire safety.

"Over time, smoke alarms have significantly reduced fire deaths across the country, but 80 percent of fire deaths still occur in the home," said Angie Wiese, president of the Fire Marshal's Association of Minnesota.

Having a fire sprinkler system in place is like having a firefighter on duty watching over your property 24 hours a day, Hovland said.

"First and foremost it gives the people occupying the home a better chance of surviving the fire," he said. "The sprinklers are activated by heat. Once the fire gets hot enough and trips it ... then that'll keep the fire in check."

Taylor, also a firefighter with Fergus Falls, thinks it would be a benefit to have the sprinklers in homes, "but then again, we're in a small community," he said. "Usually we can get to a fire pretty quick."

Saving lives and property with the sprinkler systems would definitely improve, he said.

California and Maryland have adopted the International Residential Code as it's written, requiring all new housing construction to be sprinklered. However, Minnesota's neighbors have taken out the fire sprinkler requirements, so no new homes need fire sprinklers, Taylor said. He added that this could make it hard for Minnesota to compete when it comes to building projects.

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