Proposed bill to require fire sprinklers in new Illinois homes

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EDWARDSVILLE, IL (KTVI)-- A hot debate is happening in Illinois about requiring fire sprinklers in all new single and two-family homes.

All sides seem to agree requiring fire sprinklers in new homes would make them safer.
And they all seem to agree the requirement will increase new home prices.

But when it comes to how much safer and how much more expensive, home builders and firefighters offer very different statistics.

"I am afraid that is going to put a wedge between that consumer and having a new home," said Robert Dee Jr., Vice President of Homes By Deesign.

He says for a $200,000 home, a fire sprinkler system could add at least $7000  to the price.

"If you are building a starter home for a family at $175,000 to $200,000, you are a young couple, you`ve got two kids and you`ve got bills you have a budget, a budget that has very little flexibility in it," Dee Jr. said.

Fire professionals call those figures inflated, and say it is time for Illinois to include fire sprinklers in its fire code because they`ve been required by the National Fire Protection Association code since 2006.

"Approximately 75 to 80 percent of the fire deaths across the country are in homes," said Edwardsville Fire Chief Rick Welle.

Homebuilders argue the way they build today, with thicker drywall between floors and better fire stops, new homes are safer than ever before.

But Chief Welle says some of the new lumber being used, especially in floor beams, is much lighter than the old stuff and more prone to fail in a fire.

"There are still some significant flaws within building construction that residential sprinkler systems would certainly go a long way to helping," Welle said.

Along with increasing the cost of a new home, Dee Jr. says he worries the change could hurt the home building industry which is just starting to recover from the crash of the economy.

"If we just start to catch a breath, we can`t afford that step backwards," Dee Jr. said.

A spokesman for the Illinois State Fire Marshal says the figures they go by reflect a $1.61 increase per square foot in the cost of a new home with a fire sprinkler system, which translates to approximately a $3200 increase in the cost of a 2000 square foot home, which amortized over a 30 year loan would be just a few dollars a month and might be offset by savings on insurance premiums.

"I am not sure where they got these numbers. Perhaps a pole barn would work, but not when you are looking at a home designed for today`s homebuyers. They are a little more complex," Dee Jr. said.

The ultimate decision is made by the Joint Committee On Administrative Rules, which approves all changes in the state fire code. It is made up of six state senators and six state representatives, half democrats and half republicans, appointed by the Governor.

The State Fire Marshal will hold a public hearing on the matter next Tuesday, August 6 at its headquarters office in Springfield, starting at 9 A.M.

A final decision is expected by the fall.

Ninety communities in Illinois already require fire sprinklers in new home construction.

To date, firefighters have had a hard time convincing lawmakers in other states to adopt the sprinkler requirement.  Only two of the 42 states where it has been proposed, California and Massachusetts, have made it the law.

"It was a similar pushback that we saw when seatbelts were required in cars in the 70s and smoke detectors were required in homes in the 80s," Welle said.

"When it`s all behind us ten years later, we are going to wonder how we ever lived without it."

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