Deadly Fires Renew Push For Retrofitting Older Buildings With Fire Sprinklers

The headlines are horrific:

London – At least 80 dead in a fire in a 24-story apartment building in June.

Honolulu – Three dead in a fire in a 36-story condo building in July.

Pittsburgh – One dead in a fire in a 17-story apartment building in May.

What do these tragic fires have in common? They all took place in medium- and high-rise residential buildings that were not equipped with fire sprinklers. In each case, the buildings were constructed before fire codes required the fire safety systems and owners were not required to retrofit the structures with sprinklers.

The spate of fires this year has reignited the debate over whether older towers should be required to retrofit sprinkler systems. In general, the debate has been between building owners, who say it is too expensive and disruptive, and fire and public officials, who argue the safety benefits should be paramount. In general, the building owners have prevailed.

For example, the L.A. Times reports that there were several unsuccessful efforts to require sprinkler retrofits in Oahu high-rises before the fire. Property and condo owners objected to the cost. Separate studies of the Marco Polo tower where the fire occurred had estimated the cost of retrofitting at $4,300 and $7,900 per unit.

In wake of the Marco Polo fire, the Honolulu mayor has introduced legislation requiring retrofits.

If it’s approved, Honolulu would join a number of other major cities that have required fire sprinklers in high-rises, regardless of when they were built, including Los Angeles, Houston, San Antonio, San Diego, Chicago and Philadelphia.

In many cases, residents are unaware that their buildings lack sprinkler systems. However, the publicity generated by the fires in London and Honolulu might cause more current and prospective residents to ask about it, which could place market pressure on owners to add them.

Retrofitting residential buildings with sprinklers is expensive and disruptive, but using BlazeMaster® Pipe & Fittings can minimize trouble for owners and tenants. Listed by UL and UL-C for NFPA 13 light hazard occupancies as well as residential occupancies in NFPA 13R and 13D, its advantages over metallic systems include:

  • It can be installed in one room or building section at a time, avoiding resident disturbances
  • It’s joined with solvent cement, eliminating the need for noisy and hazardous welding
  • It can hang directly to walls or ceilings, fit into tight spaces and requires less general contractor work and cleanup
  • Flexibility for concealed and exposed installation
  • On-site fabrication requires less storage space
  • Faster installation with lower labor and material costs

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