Members of a Quad-City builders coalition received $20,000 Thursday to step up its educational campaign opposing the mandatory installation of fire sprinklers in new single-family homes.

The coalition headed by the Quad-City Builders & Remodelers Association (formerly the Homebuilders) includes the Quad-City Area Realtor Association, the Quad-Cities Chamber of Commerce, Habitat for Humanity-Quad-Cities and the Student-Built Home Project.

The money from the Iowa Association of Realtors is in addition to about $9,000 recently received from the Illinois Association of Realtors to be used for the same purpose, said Julie Awkerman, the executive officer of the builders and remodelers.

The issue of fire sprinklers has been long-running in the Quad-Cities, and people attending the current Parade of Homes may have seen the "Your Home — Your Choice" page in the parade plan book sponsored by the coalition. The information emphasizes the effectiveness of the hard-wired, interconnected, battery-backup smoke detectors required in today's homes and the added cost of sprinklers.

How did fire sprinklers come up in the first place?

The requirement that they be installed in new single-family homes was included in the 2009 International Residential Code, a model building code used by most communities throughout the country. But for various reasons, the requirement has not been in force in the Quad-Cities. Either exemptions were passed by state and local governments,  or governments did not adopt the updated code.

Exemptions are expiring, though, so the Illowa Building Officials Association — a group of Quad-City building and code enforcement officials — has been working to come up with options it hopes will be acceptable to homebuilders who staunchly oppose the mandate on the basis of housing affordability, consumer choice and inherent property rights.

Local group comes up with options

Bob Buck, the president of the Illowa group, said the main reason for including fire sprinklers in the code is safety. It’s not to extinguish fires, but rather to extend the amount of time residents have to get out  — and that firefighters have to get in and out  — of a burning home.

Building materials are constantly changing, and testing agencies have found that the engineered lumber used in the floor I-joists of most new homes burns faster than the solid, sawed "legacy lumber" used in the past, Buck said.

Results of an Underwriters Laboratory test showed I-joists of floors collapsing in less than six minutes, he added. 

“If a fire started in a basement, by the time occupants were woke up by a smoke detector, there’s a chance that floor could already be collapsing in the basement,” he said. “And by the time the firefighters get there, they can’t safely go in.”

So, earlier this year, Illowa came up with four alternatives to sprinklers that it believes "still promote safe homes for residents and emergency responders," he said. They are:

  • The use of fire-resistant I-joists
  • The use of 2-by-10 or larger solid-sawed "legacy" lumber
  • The installation of sheetrock to the ceiling of the basement to cover the floor assembly. The sheetrock will delay the fire. The sheetrock does not have to cover the entire floor, but the uncovered areas must not exceed 80 square feet. Homes built with a finished basement already meet this exception, Buck said.
  • Finally, if a home is built over a crawl space with no basement, the requirement would not apply.


Affordabilty, choice, property rights at issue 

Builders appreciate the work the Illowa group went through to come up with these options, but their ultimate goal is to eliminate the mandate in favor of homeowner choice, Awkerman said.

"Where does it end?" she said of the code requirements. "What's next? It just doesn't stop."

Affordability is one concern, said Eugene Holst, the CEO of the Quad-City Area Realtor Association. While cost estimates for sprinkler systems vary widely, $2,000 is an often-quoted price. For each additional $1,000 added to the price of a home, a certain number of buyers are priced out of a home, Holst said.

And while it is true that many new homes are built with finished basements — and thus would not need sprinklers under the Illowa proposal — it also is true that many are not.

Buck, the president of the Illowa group, said that of the 19 homebuilders who have submitted plans to build houses in a 40-home LeClaire subdivision,  none have finished basements.

Builders also report that the fire-retardant I-joists are not available locally, Awkerman said.

Buck said the major companies that manufacture engineered I-joists are making them more available, but they are more expensive. "I can’t tell you how much more, but quite a bit," he said.

And as for using legacy lumber instead of engineered, that is not a good option for homebuilders because they can't get the spans preferred in today's floor plans with the legacy wood, Awkerman said.

The builders also stand on the principles of consumer choice and property rights.


The campaign

Since October, the remodelers and builders association has spent about $17,000 on a television advertising campaign to educate the public on its views, Awkerman said.

Holst said the new money from the state Realtor associations likely will be spent on polling Scott County residents, mailing postcards to them and meeting with government officials.

"Education is first and foremost, of the public and of elected officials," he said. "It goes back to choice. We're not against sprinklers, we're not against safety, we're against eliminating personal property rights."

Building officials and builders alike have been waiting for action affecting the mandate on the state level in both Iowa and Illinois, but nothing has been forthcoming. "A lot of people have been holding off to see what the states are going to do, but the states don't seem in a hurry. either," Buck said.