Archive for Sunday, November 27, 2005

Sprinkler systems might be required

November 27, 2005


The day may soon be coming when every new apartment in Lawrence will have a fire sprinkler system, but city fire officials probably won't push to retrofit older apartments with the devices.

Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Marshal Rich Barr said the city's Fire Code Board of Appeals next month should begin reviewing a new fire code that would require sprinklers for every newly constructed apartment building - any building containing more than two units - regardless of its size or location.

"If you want to save people from fire, sprinklers are the best way to do it," said Barr, who said the code review was planned before an October fire in the Boardwalk Apartments that left three residents dead.

But requiring every apartment building, new or old, to have fire sprinklers is easier said than done, Barr said.

It took more than a decade of lobbying to require all of then 39 fraternities and sororities in Lawrence to retrofit their buildings with sprinkler systems. Barr said his department was successful in winning that change in 1993 after showing that one-third of all the fraternity and sorority houses in Lawrence were suffering a major fire every 10 years.

Fire Marshal Rich Barr looks at one of the sprinkler heads at the Alpha Chi Omega sorority house. The city got tough on Kansas University's greek houses over fire sprinkler systems in  the 1990s and may do the same for Lawrence apartment buildings.

Fire Marshal Rich Barr looks at one of the sprinkler heads at the Alpha Chi Omega sorority house. The city got tough on Kansas University's greek houses over fire sprinkler systems in the 1990s and may do the same for Lawrence apartment buildings.

Barr said he was looking for information on the fire rate at Lawrence apartments, but he knew it would not be that high.

"I would love to retrofit every apartment in this town with fire sprinklers," Barr said. "But I'll have to provide statistical data to justify it, and right now I'm not sure I've landed upon it."

Landlords oppose

The Boardwalk Apartment complex did not have sprinklers and was not required to because it was built in the late 1960s, before the city's fire codes made any provisions for sprinkler systems.

Barr said any effort to require older apartments to be retrofitted with sprinklers likely would draw strong opposition from landlords.

Bob Ebey, a member of the board of Landlords of Lawrence, said the costs associated with installing the systems in older buildings would be prohibitive. Costs to install systems in new construction are about $1.50 per square foot, but Barr conceded that price could easily double in a retrofit situation.

Ebey said prices could rise higher if the project involved removing asbestos or encountered other difficulties associated with older buildings.

Many times the pipes must be left exposed and detract from the aesthetics of an apartment, Ebey said.

But Barr said he thought requiring every new apartment building to have a fire sprinkler would be a major improvement because the current code - approved in the late 1980s - does have flaws. Current codes require a fire sprinkler only if the apartment building is at least three stories high or has 16 or more dwelling units.

Plus, builders can get around the three-story requirement by building the bottom floor halfway into the ground. That's counted as a basement and not a story.

"But I can assure you that the person looking out of the top-floor window of one of those buildings doesn't feel like they are getting ready to jump out of a second-story window," Barr said.

Marketing tool

Ebey said he did not expect strong opposition from landlords if the codes are written to only require sprinklers for all newly constructed apartments.

"I don't have any problem with that," Ebey said. "It is like putting in smoke detectors. If we can do it, we should do it to protect the safety of the residents."

Barr said that virtually all of the new, large apartment complexes in Lawrence already installed sprinklers as part of their construction. But he said many smaller triplex and fourplex apartment buildings didn't install them.

A new attitude, though, may be emerging following the Boardwalk fire. Ebey said he thought sprinkler systems in apartments could become a marketing tool to help rent an apartment to a prospective tenant.

"I think renters will start paying a lot more attention to that," Ebey said.

Barr said he knew that some people - the people who oftentimes pay the rent - already were.

"We get calls every year from parents asking whether their child's apartment is protected with sprinklers," Barr said. "When you see events like we have had, parents definitely start thinking about it."

Barr said the city's fire board likely would spend about a year reviewing the new International Fire Code - which addresses many other issues besides sprinklers - before adopting it. City commissioners will have to give final approval to the code before it takes effect.


spikey_mcmarbles 12 years, 6 months ago

"Many times the pipes must be left exposed and detract from the aesthetics of an apartment, Ebey said."

Damn those ugly ugly safety devices!

The office I work in has sprinklers, and the pipes aren't exposed, only the sprinkler heads. Perhaps someone with fire protection experience could shed some light on why the fire protection piping needs to be exposed.

I would imagine that insurance companies would give a healthy discount to properties that are sprinkled.

Considering what new construction costs in Lawrence, that one-time cost seems to be reasonably inexpensive way to safeguard one's investment.

kansasfire911 12 years, 6 months ago

I'm sure the pipes need to be exposed because the cost would be to high to install into the building. Newer buildings can have them built in.

The pipes and sprinklers would be a dry system which means the pipes would not have water in them (so they don't freeze). The water would be piped into city water going to a pump at the facilty and once the sprinkler is activated it turns the pump on for water flow. There would be a Fire Department Conection (FDC) where the first ariving Engine can hook up to on the outside of the building and increase the pressure and flow rate of the pump.

Keep in mind that sprinklers don't necesarily put out the fire, but rather contain it.

As a firefighter in Johnson County I have ran my fair share of apartment fires that did not have sprinkler system. They are a good idea, who cares about the cost when compaired to the cost of saving human lives.

wlpywd 12 years, 6 months ago

i had a neighbor who had a smokey grease mess in her oven. No fire, but it set off the sprinklers and alarms in my apartment as well. close to $6000 damage to my electronics and speakers, computer, tv. etc. that somehow wasn't covered by renters insurance as it wasn't actually my apartment. all our building rent went up $40 the following year because they had to pay to re-carpet all the apartments and ceiling in the below apartment. Why can't sprinklers use a dry material or foam material that can be cleaned? water damage was the last thing a "fire" should cause. i always thought water-sprinkler systems were the bottom-of-the-line, cheapest excuse for containment.

lunacydetector 12 years, 6 months ago

the smoke alarm i understand but i'm trying to figure out how smokey grease can set off sprinklers without a fire. i thought sprinklers are fire activated.

wlpywd 12 years, 6 months ago

i dont know, thats all she said, all the findings were. sprinklers were suppose to only go off in her place too, not neighboring units either. i'm gripping about the water rather than the way it was set off.

Ragingbear 12 years, 6 months ago

The dry gas fire suppression system that is used in high-end computer places and such are very dangerous to humans. Halon gas will pretty much kill any fire, but does so by making the oxygen unusable, thus unbreathable. Not to mention that the price of it is horrendous.

The push for sprinklers happened a few years ago, and people like the owners of Boardwalk greased the right palms to convince them that fire wasn't a big enough issue to require them.

Then the largest fire to date happened. Total wake up call. Then the fire on Colorado, could have been much worse.

kansasfire911 12 years, 6 months ago

To answer lunacydetector: Sprinklers are rated at different temps. The bulbs on the sprinklers have diferent colors representing different temps. it takes to break them and set the water flow. The heat from a grease fire may be able to set it off if that sprinkler was rated for that temp.

bige1030 12 years, 6 months ago

"Costs to install systems in new construction are about $1.50 per square foot, but Barr conceded that price could easily double in a retrofit situation."

Hmmm...$1800 to retrofit my apartment. That means if the landlord spreads the cost over a year, I pay $150 more for rent. Two years, that's $75 more. Three, $50 more. Who knows how they spread it out? I'm not sure, though, of how much could be offset by property insurance savings.

Also, what wlpywd said has me worried about sprinklers, too. If we had a false alarm now, without sprinklers, it costs me nothing but wasted time. With sprinklers, the false alarm could cost thousands of dollars - and he makes a good point that it might not be covered by insurance!

I don't know about you, but I'd rather spend that money on the essentials for living rather than on a safety device that could do me harm (perhaps even cause an electrical fire if the computer is on?).

Reason McLucus 12 years, 6 months ago

Sounds like an excellant idea. The city should look into the possibility of allowing owners of older apartment buildings such as the one I once lived in to use part of their property tax payment to cover the cost of installing sprinkler systems. If current legislation doesn't allow such use, maybe the legislature could be persuaded to change the law.

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