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Managing the growing use of residential fire sprinkler systems

Water utilities are serving more customers with residential fire sprinkler systems (RFSS) because of a rising tide in new-home buyer requests, voluntary builder installations and building code revisions.

Water utilities are serving more customers with residential fire sprinkler systems (RFSS) because of a rising tide in new-home buyer requests, voluntary builder installations and building code revisions.

The American Water Works Association (AWWA) is equipping water utilities to manage RFSS by releasing a new report, “Residential Fire Sprinkler Systems - Guidance for Water Utilities.” The report, funded by AWWA’s Technical and Educational Council, describes how to establish an RFSS management program and explains RFSS purposes and features. 

“About 80 percent of structure fires in this country occur in residential occupancies, along with about 80 percent of all fire deaths,” said Roland Asp of the National Fire Sprinkler Association, who serves on the RFSS project team. “Residential sprinkler systems were developed to combat these staggering statistics.”

“Fires happen where we should feel safest – in our homes – and water utilities play a vital role in keeping us safe,” Asp added. “AWWA has a long-standing commitment to the residential sprinkler concept and can be relied on for up-to-date information on this topic.”

RFSS have been used in some communities for more than 30 years, and AWWA has a policy statement regarding their design, approval, installation and service. Homes with RFSS benefit from timely protection from fires that can damage property and put residents at risk of injury or death. 

George Kunkel, an industry consultant on the RFSS project team, said water utilities typically design additional capacity into their distribution system for commercial and industrial fire sprinkler systems. In contrast, RFSS sprinkler heads require a smaller stream of water for when a fire first ignites.

“Water utilities traditionally provided domestic water service and fire service separately, using different sizes of piping, meters, backflow protection requirements, rates and charges, and other features,” Kunkel said. “RFSS can be considered a newer ‘hybrid’ system with features of both traditional domestic and fire systems.” This poses new challenges for many utilities.

Project team member Gary Trachtman of Arcadis, which developed the RFSS report, said utilities also need to consider the cost of serving residential customers with RFSS. “Utilities should ensure that hydraulic and water quality requirements are met, at reasonable cost and without revenue loss,” he said. “It is important to have proper guidance on water service connection pipe sizing, metering, permitting and billing so each utility can establish its own policies and procedures for RFSS within their service area.”

Neil Kaufman, project team member and water engineer with Truckee Donner Public Utilities, said RFSS are “a different beast” from commercial and industrial fire sprinkler systems. “Our report is meant to identify the issues that any particular community should be discussing and thinking about regarding RFSS,” he said. 

“For example, in California all new single-family homes must have RFSS, but how that is handled from the utility side is pretty open-ended,” he added, noting that three utilities in his area all have different approaches to handling RFSS.

 
 
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