Proposal Would Mandate Sprinkler Systems in New, Large Minn. Homes

Updated: 10/30/2013 7:07 PM By: Stephen Tellier

It's a debate of your safety versus your money if you're buying a brand new home. 

After years of debate, the state wants all large homes built in Minnesota to be outfitted with mandatory indoor sprinkler systems. However, the new proposal seems to have fully satisfied no one. 

Over the past couple years, lawmakers have twice passed bills that would have prevented Minnesota from mandating home sprinkler systems. But twice, Gov. Mark Dayton has vetoed those bills. And on Monday, the state rolled out its own proposal for the first time, and it's turning up the heat on this controversial issue.

"The systems we're talking about now are life-saving devices," said Tom Brace, executive director of the Minnesota State Fire Chiefs Association.

Fire experts said they save lives. Builders say they'll burden home buyers.

"We do not believe this will make homes safer," said Shawn Nelson, vice president of the Builders Association of the Twin Cities.

Nelson said BATC rarely comes out against a proposed building code. The so-called sprinkler mandate is an exception.

"We don't see a safety issue. New homes are extremely safe," Nelson said.

The state's proposed sprinkler rule is aimed at stopping fires before they spread throughout a home, and would only apply to homes larger than 4,500 square feet. But Nelson said unfinished basements would be included in that number.

"About a third of the homes in the most recent Parade of Homes would be impacted by this rule, so it will hit a lot of consumers," Nelson said.

He also said mandatory sprinklers would increase the cost of a four-bedroom home by about $9,000 -- without any benefits.

"We think that there's already effective ways of saving those lives -- with smoke detectors that cost significantly less," Nelson said.

Brace took exception with that statement.

"The place that we live is the single most unsafe occupancy," Brace said.

He's a longtime fire marshal, and said the BATC's cost estimate is a few thousand dollars too high, and that whatever the cost, sprinklers are worth it.

"It's a protector of life and property, and it also assists our fire service in fighting fires in residences," Brace said.

Brace said the 4,500 square foot rule was a compromise. He eventually wants mandatory sprinkler systems in all newly built homes in Minnesota. But he said he's hopeful this move is the first step down that road.

Some insurance companies do offer discounts for homes with sprinkler systems.

A code change like this one does not require legislative approval. But it will get an administrative law hearing on Dec. 12, where both sides will be able to state their cases. The public comment period has also officially begun.