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Residential Fire Sprinkler Systems Are Excellent Idea ex Idea

If you really want to keep your home and the people and property in it as safe as possible from fire, consider a residential sprinkler system.

According to the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA), a division of FEMA, fire sprinklers inside a home reduce the chance of fire death by 80 percent and cut the likelihood of property damage by 71 percent.

Industry experts and fire control and prevention pros say sprinklers are a good idea for all homes, whether new or existing, and should be used in combination with smoke detectors.

Across the United States, hundreds of municipalities as well as California and Maryland require that new residential construction include fire sprinklers. However, newly proposed mandates generally face strong opposition from home building organizations, in large part because they add to the cost and complexity of building. To find out if your locality mandates sprinklers, contact your state fire marshal’s office.

While interviewing consumers, highly rated sprinkler installers and experts on fire control and prevention, including the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), our research staff learned that many homeowners have misconceptions about home sprinkler systems:

Perception: Every sprinkler in the house will go off at once. The reality, experts say, is that only the heads that detect fire will activate. Usually, one head will extinguish a blaze before it spreads.

Perception: Sprinkler systems are unattractive. The reality, experts say, is that the heads stay flush against the wall or ceiling until deployed, so they don’t greatly affect home aesthetics. A single sprinkler head can cover from 144 to 200 square feet.

According to the NFPA, the cost of a fire sprinkler system, installed, has dropped from an average $1.61 per square foot in 2008 to $1.35 in 2013. The association says the decline is due to government mandates, which increase the number of contractors doing the work. In some parts of California, according to the NFPA, the cost is less than $1 a square foot.

The actual price can vary widely by region. One Chicago-area homeowner, whose town of Libertyville, Ill., requires a fire sprinklers in new construction, paid about $12,000 to have a sprinkler system included in a home built in 2007.

The NFPA doesn’t maintain statistics about installing sprinklers in existing homes. However, additional work to cut walls and update existing plumbing means the cost is likely higher than for new construction. One state fire marshal told our team that he retrofitted his 2,400-square-foot home with sprinklers for $3,500.

According to the USFA, homeowners who have sprinklers should expect a discount of 5 to 15 percent on their home insurance.

Experts recommend that fire sprinkler systems should be regularly maintained. This includes checking to make sure that sprinklers aren’t blocked, annually opening the drain valve to be sure water flows freely, and arranging an annual inspection by a licensed plumber to be sure the system’s backflow prevention device is working correctly.

Angie Hicks is the founder of Angie’s List, a resource for local consumer reviews on everything from home repair to health care. Follow her on Twitter at Angie—Hicks.