Going against the grain: Builder promotes sprinklers

Florida homebuilder offers free sprinkler systems in homes he builds and works with NFPA to advocate for them
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Wednesday, December 12, 2012

CAPE CORAL, Fla.—Many homebuilders fight against installing home fire sprinklers, contending they discourage sales by jacking up a home’s price tag. But Sam Davis, a builder based here, believes so strongly that sprinklers save lives that he offers them free in all the homes he builds.

Davis, president and CEO of Island Harbor Construction and an outspoken advocate of home fire sprinklers, was featured in the November edition of the National Fire Protection Association’s Fire Sprinkler Initiative newsletter. The initiative, which features a video of Davis on its website, is a nationwide effort to get more fire sprinklers into homes through the adoption of sprinkler requirements in new construction.

Davis told Security System News that he used to build multistory buildings, where sprinklers are required. Later, when he turned his focus to building single-family homes and would see in the news how a small kitchen fire or garage fire could spread rapidly and kill a home’s occupants, “I just decided it’s a no-brainer [to have home fire sprinklers].”

He continued, “we have customers who will spend $25,000 on granite counter tops, they’ll buy top-of-the-line appliances, and they could take a few thousand dollars of that and put a fire sprinkler system in their house and save their lives.”

It’s a misconception that sprinklers cost too much, Davis said. The average cost nationally for installing a sprinkler system is $1.61 per square foot. “It’s roughly 1 percent of the total building cost today,” Davis said.

And he said that when home sprinklers are required by state or local governments, all builders have to install them, which evens out the impact on a home’s price tag. “If everybody has to do it, it keeps everybody’s costs the same,” he said.

Davis compares sprinkler requirements to requirements that Florida imposes on builders to protect homes from hurricanes, such as having to install hurricane impact glass or shutters on windows. “That was extra money for all of us but we all had to do it so it kept us all on the same level playing field,” he said. “… We build a good house so it won’t blow away, but we don’t build a house so it won’t burn down."

To incentivize homebuilders to install sprinklers, Davis is one of those behind an unusual proposal in this city to use a carrot instead of a stick approach. A proposed ordinance would give homebuilders a break on city building impact fees if they install fire sprinklers in new homes. Supporters say that would save not only lives but also taxpayer money in the long run.

The ordinance was not approved this year as hoped, but Davis thinks it will be adopted in 2013. “We’re ready to take it to the [city] council,” he said.

Part of his effort includes educating the public, many of whom believe misconceptions about sprinklers such as that all the heads go off at once if there’s a fire. “That’s totally false,” Davis said.

His company partners with Wayne Automatic Fire Sprinklers to install the sprinklers in the homes he builds, and Davis said other sprinkler installers could form such partnerships with builders. His company and Wayne Automatic are working on an advertising campaign and have done demonstration burns together to help the public understand the efficacy of sprinklers.

How can he afford to give away sprinkler systems?

Davis told SSN that his successful company is based “on referrals from satisfied clients,” so he spends little on advertising. “Instead of promoting sports teams and contributing to other groups that can put your name out in public, we have chosen to give our money to help save someone's life,” he said.