#121 – Residential Sprinkler System Installation Is Important

by Bill Ford

The installation and maintenance of fire sprinkler systems in a residential home can save lives and property. As someone who has been involved in the Fire Protection Field for forty-four years, I look back on my experiences…suffice it to say, I have resided in two residences over the last 29 years and those residences have been protected by both automatic sprinkler and commercial fire alarm systems. Residential HomeAt the age of 18, while I was still a senior in high school, I joined the fire service as a paid, on call firefighter, which gave me an early insight to the devastating effects of fire and its impact on this country. Soon after, I left for college to begin my studies at Eastern Kentucky University majoring in Fire Prevention and Control. From there the groundwork was laid, as I continued to learn that America suffered significantly from the issue of uncontrolled fire. At the age of 21, I responded to a fire and was part of the EMS crew transporting a three-year-old child to the hospital from a burning home—the child did not survive. That event made a huge impact on me — truly shaping my vision and solidifying my career choice in the fire prevention industry.

As a Fire Marshal I should embrace the solution to America’s fire fatality problem

After college, I joined the Dayton Fire Department as a professional firefighter. I eventually served as the Fire Protection Plans Examiner– ultimately being promoted to the position of Fire Protection Engineer/Fire Marshal. I also served as a cross trained fire/police investigator during that time. Having seen an estimated 174 fire deaths and too many victims of uncontrolled fire during my twenty years working for that organization — I decided to serve another nine years as a fire chief. I then retired, only to go back to serving as the fire marshal for a suburban fire department where I am still employed full time today.

With my educational and work history—along with what I have observed from experience—it was very important to me to have a sprinkler system in my home. Therefore, I made up my mind that when I had the opportunity to build my first home the decision to install automatic sprinkler protection would be included in the plans. Residential Sprinkler System DrawingThe horrific events and the loss of life I had witnessed convinced me that I did not want myself or my family to ever suffer the effects of an uncontrolled fire. Furthermore, I felt as a Fire Marshal I should embrace the solution to America’s fire fatality problem. If in my daily job I required businesses to install fire sprinklers and fire detection as a code official, I should certainly walk the walk. I try to encourage other members of my fire code enforcement community to install such equipment in their own homes, as it sets a good example.

First Experience in Building a Home with Automatic Sprinkler Protection

My first experience in building a home with automatic sprinkler protection was interesting. I had a few hurdles, as I recall, with the project and production builder. When I informed them that I wanted to install a sprinkler system the sales consultant said it would be no problem, if it was done before the sod was installed! I had to clarify that I wanted a FIRE sprinkler system. I explained my desire to install a fire sprinkler system, commercial fire alarm/detection system, and security system. I had to jump through a lot of hoops in order to release the production building company from liability. If there was ever any problem with the system—they did not want to be held accountable. I finally prevailed and it was agreed that the house would have fire protection systems.

Once we were able to move forward to installing the sprinkler system, we needed to install a larger domestic water meter, which required a different meter yoke. Therefore, a bigger meter box pit was also needed, so those details needed to be resolved. Then, issues of what type of backflow device would be needed and the service size of that device, but ultimately it all worked out and we forged ahead. This was all in the late 1980’s and the water purveyors had not ever seen a residential sprinkler system installed. My next surprise was after we installed all of the CPVC piping and had the system roughed out and hydrostatically tested, I spent a whole day cutting 2 ¼” holes so that the recessed heads could be installed into the drywall. Unfortunately, I had to redo it, as the drywall contractor had taped and patched every hole that I had cut out—not realizing they were supposed to be there for the sprinkler heads. I also recall them telling me that they thought the orange pipe was a gas line. Finally, the system was completed, and I was even able to host a meeting of the Southwest Ohio Fire Safety Council, comprising fire safety inspectors from the Dayton area, to visit the home and see the system.

The home I reside in now was built 15 fifteen years ago and has also had its share of challenges; however, on this project, I served as the general contractor subbing out some of the various trades. I did do all the electrical work, fire alarm installation, voice and data cabling– along with security system installation. I ended up hiring a contractor to rough the sprinkler pipe for the project, as I was getting burned out working all day at my real job and then working, what seemed like, all night on the house. It was a big project and I appreciated the extra help.

I had to install a 5,000-gallon concrete cistern for my domestic water.

The challenge for this home, which was a 2,400 square foot single story house, with a basement, was the fact that we were building in an undeveloped farm area where water wells were not productive. As a result, I had to install a 5,000-gallon concrete cistern for my domestic water. This cistern also supplies the residential sprinkler system using a listed fire pump controller, which controls two 2 hp fire booster pumps. While this added somewhat to the complexity of the installation, I did not let it deter me from completing the installation. I used the same techniques for installing and insulating the piping in the attic that I had used in the previous house — a blanket of bubble wrap making a tent over the piping and blowing in R40 insulation had proved successful and still is (despite extreme winters here in Ohio). I am constantly amazed that today when visitors come to my house, unless I point out that the system exists, most people do not even see the equipment, as the white heads blend into the wall or ceiling surfaces. Thinking back on both projects, if I were to build another house, would I go through the effort to protect it with sprinklers? The answer would be yes! You see, each night that I lay my head down to sleep, while I might have worries like other folks, I never worry about suffering the horrible fate of an unfriendly fire. I have had the unfortunate opportunity to witness the total devastation of fire. I like knowing that I have some peace of mind where that is concerned. The facts are that Smoke Detectors and Fire Sprinklers Save Lives. I am passionate about working in the Fire Protection Industry and getting the word out — prevention is key.

Bill Ford has been working in the Fire Protection Industry since he was a senior in high school. He studied at Eastern Kentucky University majoring in Fire Prevention and Control. He has served as a Fire Protection Plans Examiner, Fire Protection Engineer, Fire Investigator, Fire Chief and currently is a full-time Fire Marshall for a suburban fire department. Bill also serves as an Instructor for Fire Tech Productions, Inc. and can be contacted at the following email address: bill@firetech.com.

For additional information on household fire safety, view House Fires: Prevention, Preparation, and Other Safety Considerations