Local fire officials make the case for residential sprinkler systems



BUCKSPORT — On a recent Saturday morning, two wooden structures were set on fire along the town’s waterfront while firefighters stood at a distance and watched as they burned.

If that sounds like a dereliction of duty, it was not. It was instead a chance to give members of the public a chance to learn firsthand about fire safety and to see what a difference sprinklers can make.

Not the kind of sprinklers kids run through on the lawn on a hot July day, but a scaled-down version of the kind seen in hospitals, commercial buildings and big-box stores.

For anyone who thought that sprinklers were only found in those nonresidential settings, the demonstration in Bucksport was a chance for firefighters to show that is not the case.

Firefighters built the 8-foot-by-8-foot cubes out of two-by-fours and plywood for the specific purpose of being set on fire. Each one was outfitted with the same basic furnishings: a couch, a bureau, curtains and a waste basket.

Bucksport Fire Chief Craig Bowden played the role of fire starter, using a small gas torch to ignite materials in the waste basket.

Bucksport Fire Chief Craig Bowden watches as a wooden structure burns during a demonstration on the town’s waterfront recently. PHOTO BY STEVE FULLER
Bucksport Fire Chief Craig Bowden watches as a wooden structure burns during a demonstration on the town’s waterfront recently.
PHOTO BY STEVE FULLER

Firefighters were on hand and at the ready, but they stood by for a couple of minutes at first to simulate the reality of firefighting — that it takes time for them to get to the station after a fire is reported, and to then get from the station to the fire scene.

“What we’re going to try to show is, number one, how quickly a fire builds,” Bowden said.

That point was made, and made effectively. Within 30 seconds, flames were clearly visible in the cube. At about a minute in, black smoke was billowing into the sky and flames filled the room and spilled out of the structure.

By the minute and 30-second mark, it was not an exaggeration to call the fire an inferno.

That was the situation in the first cube. The key difference between the two cubes was this: the second one was outfitted with a sprinkler, while the first was not. Bowden said it was designed to illustrate the difference that sprinklers can make in residential homes.

Firefighters let both cubes burn an equal amount of time before turning their hoses on them, but in the case of the second cube the sprinkler system had already kicked in and helped to keep the fire contained. The fireball seen in the first cube was not repeated in the second one.

When both fires had been put out, the difference was night and day: the first cube was charred and everything in it had been blackened by the flames. While there was damage in the second cube, it was much less extensive, and much of the lumber still had its original coloring and was not charred.

Audience members were given a chance to get an up-close look at both cubes after the fires were extinguished to see the difference firsthand.

Fire officials in Ellsworth hope to sometime host a similar demonstration in the city, as they also sing the praises of residential sprinkler systems.

“It really is amazing how much those help,” said Deputy Fire Chief Kevin DePregner.

Fire Inspector Mike Hangge said there are two different types of sprinklers for residential setting — one that is generally for apartment buildings and the other for one- and two-family homes or townhouses.

Adding a sprinkler system to a residential building does come at a cost. While it is cheaper to do while a home is being built, it will still likely add about 2 percent to the overall building cost. Adding sprinklers to a new home with a price tag of $250,000, then, would increase the total price by about $5,000.

Fire officials like to point out that that is comparable — or in some cases cheaper — than the cost of adding other features homeowners more often consider, such as granite countertops.

Bucksport Fire Chief Craig Bowden shows children who attended a recent fire safety demonstration the difference a sprinkler system can make in a home. The structure on the left had a sprinkler installed, while the one on the right did not. PHOTO BY STEVE FULLER
Bucksport Fire Chief Craig Bowden shows children who attended a recent fire safety demonstration the difference a sprinkler system can make in a home. The structure on the left had a sprinkler installed, while the one on the right did not.
PHOTO BY STEVE FULLER

It is more expensive to retrofit a home, though how expensive depends on the particular home. Houses that rely on wells for waters might also have to add a storage tank, which pushes the cost up.

But fire officials argue the cost is worth it. Having a sprinkler system can lower home insurance rates between 10 and 15 percent, according to information from insurance companies, and it also lowers the dollar value of losses if a home does experience a fire.

Scottsdale, Ariz., has required all new homes to have sprinkler systems since 1986. As such, it is often cited as a case study for residential sprinkler use. Through 2001, the average loss in a Scottsdale house fire where sprinklers were installed was $2,166, while the average loss in a home without sprinklers was $45,019.

The Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition (HFSC) said its “biggest challenge is dispelling the myths that all sprinklers are activated at one time or that sprinklers are activated by smoke, not heat.”

Hangge explained that the sprinkler heads in a residential system are designed to operate independently of one another, and only activate in the area(s) where fire is present.

“If one goes off in this room, another one’s not going to go off in a room down the hall,” he said. HFSC reported that a study showed that in about 90 percent of home fires, only one sprinkler head was necessary to control the fire.

Hangge reiterated the point made by the sprinkler coalition about temperatures, also.

“The temperature on the ceiling has to reach from between 160 to 180 degrees for that sprinkler to go off,” he said, adding that smoke does not cause the sprinkler to activate.

Officials also work to address a fear about water damage from sprinklers, as HFSC noted many homeowners said that fear “would serve as a barrier to installing a home fire sprinkler system.”

Both Bucksport and Ellsworth fire officials noted a sprinkler head discharges much less water than the alternative — a fire hose — in the event of a fire: between 7 to 10 gallons per minute for a sprinkler head, versus 200 to 300 gallons per minute from a fire hose.

“It’s a big difference,” Hangge said.

Turning again to Scottsdale, the National Fire Protection Association said the average amount of water flowed by sprinklers in a house fire was 299 gallons (for the entire fire) “versus an estimated manual suppression usage of approximately 6,000 gallons per fire.”

Steve Fuller

Steve Fuller

Reporter at The Ellsworth American,
Steve Fuller worked at The Ellsworth American from 2012 to early 2018. He covered the city of Ellsworth, including the Ellsworth School Department and the city police beat, as well as the towns of Amherst, Aurora, Eastbrook, Great Pond, Mariaville, Osborn, Otis and Waltham. A native of Waldo County, he served as editor of Belfast's Republican Journal prior to joining the American. He lives in Orland.
Steve Fuller

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