San Mateo may loosen up on home sprinkler rules

San Mateo’s fire sprinkler ordinance is slated to become more lenient for certain residential remodels, but the city’s fire department is keeping tabs on a national discussion on the matter before making its final recommendation on any changes.

Current city rules require home­owners to upgrade or install additional sprinklers if more than 25 percent of the home’s square footage is affected in construction.

San Mateo Fire Marshal Mike Leong said the changes would allow certain smaller remodels to forego a major overhaul of sprinkler installation projects.

“It’s pretty strict right now,” he said. “Once you hit certain thresholds, you have to install new sprinklers.”

A discussion on modifications to the fire ordinance is tentatively scheduled to be presented to the City Council at its Oct. 19 meeting, but Leong said any decisions on the matter should wait until there’s resolution to a national debate on the need for fire sprinklers in residential homes.

“It’s been a long process,” he said. “We don’t want to have to change it again.”

In September 2008, the Washington, D.C.-based International Residential Code Council passed a rule requiring residential fire sprinklers to be installed in new one-story and two-story family homes and townhomes effective Jan. 1, 2011. The nonprofit creates construction codes that are adopted by most states as the basis for regulating home construction, according to the council.

The National Homebuilders Association filed a request to appeal the code last year, charging that the IRCC vote was unfairly weighted with fire safety officials. In its appeal documents, the association said the addition of mandated fire sprinkler requirements would “adversely impact the ability of NAHB members to construct new housing that is affordable to many home buyers.”

New sprinklers can cost between $1 and $1.50 per square foot, according to the U.S. Fire Administration.

The request was denied in November. The group has made another appeal that is set to go before the International Residential Code Council in Baltimore on Oct. 28.

Leong said sprinklers offer prompt fire response.

“It’s fire protection 24/7,” he said. “They are there faster than we are.”

Since 1998, California has had a requirement that all new construction include sprinkler installations.

Nonetheless, San Mateo may give builders and private citizens a break by not requiring the sprinklers for some remodeling projects.

Leong said the adjustments to San Mateo’s ordinance would only apply to remodels and still comply with all state requirements.

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