12 Investigates: Fire sprinklers effective in your home? - NBC12 - WWBT - Richmond, VA News On Your Side

12 Investigates: Fire sprinklers effective in your home?

A fire sprinkler is set off just more than a minute after a fire breaks out. (Credit: NBC12) A fire sprinkler is set off just more than a minute after a fire breaks out. (Credit: NBC12)
HENRICO, VA (WWBT) -

Last year, 77 Virginians died in house fires, while more than 400 were injured. We know smoke detectors drastically reduce deaths and injuries, but what about home sprinklers systems?

“Eight out of 10 fire fatalities occur in residential structures. If we had residential sprinklers, we would see a drastic change in hat,” said Captain Daniel Rosenbaum with Henrico Fire.

There are sprinklers in hotels and apartment buildings, but many firefighters would actually like to see them in more homes.

“There are a lot of misconceptions. A lot of people think that one head [goes off, then] all the heads go off. That doesn't happen. They think there's a lot of water damage.”

To show us how they work, Henrico firefighters built two rooms. Each has a chair, a TV, a desk and book case. There are curtains and pictures on the walls.

We placed six cameras around the rooms to cover all sorts of angles, including the ceiling. Our firefighters suited up and one even wore a camera on his helmet.

The two rooms are identical, except for one feature: one doesn't have a sprinkler and the other does. We light them up to see how it works.

Using a small hole in the back and flare, we test out the room with a sprinkler installed. The smoke alarm goes off in seconds. The trash can is on fire. The flames start to burn the side of the book case, but don't get far.

One minute, 12 seconds in, the sprinkler activates.

The fire is contained and burns out before the hoses arrive.

It's a firefighter's dream.

“I love the sprinkler systems. The room is salvageable, people survived and it actually activated in a very short time frame. The fire never really grew, basically -- from what I could see -- knee high,” said Firefighter RJ Whaley.

It's a much different story when we light up the room without sprinkler. The fire starts out small, but two minutes in, is really growing. By the four-minute mark, the flames are everywhere. Then the smoke detector explodes, followed by the TV.

“[A] fire doubles every minute that it is going unchecked,” Whaley noted.

At the five-minute mark we have flashover, meaning everything in the room is burning. At six minutes, Henrico Fire comes rushing in and puts the fire out.

“You can see where the television is melted and taken a lot of damage. The desk, the light bulb the lamp is gone. Even with five minutes, this is going to have be torn down destroyed and rebuilt,” said Whaley. Pointing to the room with the sprinkler he added, “That's just cleanup.”

The difference in the damage between the two rooms is significant.

“We had to cut it off, put the fire out within six minutes and that would be about a normal response time. So, you can see how much damage was done,” said Rosenbaum.

In the room without a sprinkler, everything burned and the firefighter's hose took out the drywall. All this damage was done in five minutes, which might be quicker than the amount of time it might take you to realize there's a problem, call 911 and for the fire department to actually arrive and get out their hoses.

Our room with a sprinkler had the fire contained and out in 90 seconds.

Sprinkler costs, adding to older homes

So how much does it cost a home owner, and what’s the value of a system like this?

“A sprinkler system is like having a firefighter in your home 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. When a fire occurs, it detects it very quickly and it will either confine the fire or extinguish the fire,” said Rosenbaum.

But very few homes in Virginia have fire sprinklers. It's not mandatory and frankly, most of us don't even think about it or ask. A 2013 Fire Protection Research Foundation study puts the price at around $1.44 per sprinkled space in homes with a basement. On average, that's about $6,300.

“That's less than a carpet upgrade, or the cost of new granite cabinets,” says Jim Edmunds. He’s a design manager with VSC Fire and Security. He sells home sprinklers and says the biggest benefit is the cost savings.

“Your insurance premium will go down if you're sprinkled.” And your home value, according to several studies, will go up.

The overall cost also depends on the type of water system you have. If you don't have public water, the cost to install them could go up.

You can retrofit an older home and when there’s a fire, only the sprinkler head closest to the flames will go off, not all the sprinklers in the entire home.

Only two states in the US have made sprinklers mandatory in new home construction: California and Maryland.

“Eight out of 10 fire fatalities occur in residential structures. If we had residential sprinklers, we would see a drastic change in that,” said Rosenbaum.

The one thing home sprinklers should never replace is your smoke detector. That's a must in every home.

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