By John Waters
On April 29, 2010, the U.S. Department of Transportation adopted strict regulations aimed at ending long delays on airport tarmacs in which passengers were held as hostages. Airlines could now be fined up to $27,500 per passenger for a flight that remains on the tarmac for more than three hours.
Before the new law was enacted, the Air Transport Association, on behalf of the nation’s largest airlines, lobbied to block government regulation of tarmac delays. Carriers made commitments to fix problems using voluntary measures, and they argued that government regulations forcing planes back to the gate after three hours would lead to more canceled flights and huge consequences for air travelers. Compelling as they might have seemed, DOT didn’t buy these arguments, and government acted to protect the public interest.
According to a Dec. 8, 2010, USA Today article, six months later, the airline industry achieved a miraculous milestone. The nation’s 18 largest airlines reported not a single tarmac delay of more than three hours for the month of October versus 11 such delays in October 2009. Moreover, since the new rule had gone into effect, only 12 extended tarmac delays were reported, versus 546 during the same period in 2009.
The “gloom and doom” predicted by the airlines never happened. In fact, while the rate of flight cancellations remained essentially unchanged, airlines improved overall on-time performance, mishandled fewer bags and received fewer passenger complaints. Given the incentive of avoiding stiff DOT fines, airlines and airports found ways to make operational adjustments that essentially ended torturous tarmac delays.
What does all of this have to do with residential fire sprinklers? Plenty. For the last 30 years, since residential fire sprinklers first became available, the home building industry has fought vigorously to block regulations that would require fire sprinklers as a standard feature in new homes. But the organizations who write our nation’s building codes eventually stopped buying industry arguments that are inconsistent with public welfare.
Effective Jan. 1, all U.S. model codes require new homes to be equipped with fire sprinklers. Unlike DOT’s regulations, however, these model code requirements are not law until states and local jurisdictions adopt them, and HBAs in many states (including Pennsylvania), having lost the model code debate, have pulled out all stops to block adoption of these codes.
Just as airlines warned of “gloom and doom” from tarmac delay rules, the Pennsylvania Home Builders Associations warn of dire consequences if jurisdictions require fire sprinklers in new homes. Their primary argument against fire sprinklers is that they will increase the cost of new homes, which in turn will delay or kill recovery of the housing market. Although that’s a nice sound bite, it fails the “perspective” test in several ways:
1. There’s no evidence that putting fire sprinklers in new homes will impact sales prices. Builders have the option of adjusting other home construction features to offset the cost of sprinklers to maintain current pricing in a competitive market. Fluctuating prices of land, lumber, concrete, etc. are routinely dealt with in that way.
2. Even if the cost of a fire sprinkler system were directly added to the sales price, the impact on monthly payments is insignificant after credits that reduce home insurance costs; for instance, State Farm Insurance, offers a 10 percent discount in homeowner’s insurance for properties protected with automatic sprinklers.
3. If the cost of fire sprinklers were enough to kill the housing recovery, so too would a 0.1 percent increase in the interest rate on a 30-year mortgage, which has about the same impact on a monthly mortgage payment. Although rates routinely rise and fall by much more than this amount, the housing market marches on.
4. As does Pennsylvania, the states of California and Maryland have adopted the International Residential Code, including fire sprinkler provisions. These states didn’t buy the argument that sprinklers will kill the housing recovery.
It is unfortunate that many builders fail to see the contribution that residential fire sprinklers could make in driving new home sales. Builders’ main competition in selling new homes is the resale market, and features such as energy efficiency and fire sprinklers differentiate new homes from existing homes, making existing homes obsolete. Safety, security and energy efficiency are powerful incentives that can drive a buyer to purchase a new home instead of a resale.
The California Building Industry Association understood the liability risk and made a prudent decision when it supported statewide adoption of the IRC, including the fire sprinkler requirement. The Pennsylvania HBAs, who like the airline industry seemingly suffer from a lack of confidence in their members’ ability to adapt and innovate, just don’t get it. Ultimately, their members might pay the price.
John Waters is co-chairman of the Pennsylvania Residential Fire Sprinkler Coalition.