What To Know About Residential Fire Sprinkler Systems

Updated: Jul. 31, 2023

To better protect your home and family from the devastation of a fire, consider investing in a residential fire sprinkler system.

Smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors are essential in every home, but don’t let the fact that you dutifully installed one in every room on every floor give you a false sense of security.

Even with smoke detectors and CO detectors on site, fire still takes lives and destroys property. Between 2015 and 2019, home fires averaged 2,620 fatalities and $7.3 billion in property damage annually in the U.S. alone, the National Fire Protection Association reports. That’s a lot of lives and money, especially when you consider 96 percent of homes contain at least one smoke alarm.

However, the odds of becoming one of these fire-related statistics drop significantly when smoke alarms and CO monitors are paired with residential fire sprinkler systems, according to Bruce D. Bouch, fire program specialist for the United States Fire Administration.

While only a handful of states and municipalities require new residential construction to include fire sprinkler systems, Bouch says he recommends them for everyone regardless of code requirements. This, he says, applies to all homeowners, not just those building a new dwelling from the ground up.

“Unlike carpet upgrades, (fire sprinklers) last for the life of the home, and they are there to protect you, your family, your friends and your pets,” Bouch says.

What Is a Residential Fire Sprinkler System and How Does It Work?

If you’re picturing a rush of water pouring from the ceiling in every room of your house whenever there’s little smoke in the kitchen, you might be hesitant to invest in a residential fire sprinkler system for fear of excessive and repeated water damage. But don’t worry — Bouch says that’s just the Hollywood version of sprinkler systems. Actual residential fire sprinklers are far more precise.

“Unlike in the movies, in most cases only one (sprinkler in the home) reacts,” Bouch says.

Depending on square footage, the typical system includes at least one sprinkler head in every room. These connect directly to your plumbing or have their own dedicated pipes.

Most of the time (and preferably, all of the time), the sprinkler heads just hang there. They only activate when they detect potentially dangerous levels of heat, Bouch says. Standard activation range is between 130 F and 155 F.

How does a residential fire sprinkler system work

A bulb filled with glycerin controls activation. When the glycerin gets hot, it expands and breaks the bulb. Once it’s broken, the pipes release water. The water flows at about 13 gallons a minute, enough to put out the fire without excessive water damage.

Types of Residential Fire Sprinkler Systems

According to the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition (HFSC), a charitable organization that works with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the USFA to educate the public about residential sprinkler systems, home sprinklers are available in three common “styles.”

  • Pendant sprinklers: These hang from the ceiling and definitely look like sprinkler heads. Even if you get them in white to match the ceiling, they’re noticeable.
  • Sidewall sprinklers: These resemble pendant sprinklers but are placed on walls rather than ceilings.
  • Concealed sprinklers: Not interested in seeing a sprinkler head sticking out of your ceiling or wall, disrupting your home aesthetic? Concealed sprinkler heads are recessed and covered with a plate so you don’t see them. Be sure not to paint the sprinkler heads or the covers. The covers come painted at the factory. Covers are also heat sensitive, like the sprinkler heads. A coat of paint could affect that sensitivity. The cover is designed to fall away from the sprinkler head when a fire hazard is detected and a thick coat of dry paint will render the sprinkler head useless.

Benefits of Residential Sprinkler Systems

The main advantage is the superior level of fire protection they provide, Bouch says. A sprinkler system reacts so fast that the fire is often contained before the fire department arrives.

Home fire sprinkler systems also:

  1. Keep people and pets safe. “You can be sound asleep on the couch in the very same room … and the sprinkler will react and save your life,” says Bouch. But fires can turn deadly in two minutes, the HFSC says, meaning the person on that couch might not even have a chance to react before those two minutes are up. As for your pets, since they aren’t capable of using a fire extinguisher or opening a door or window to escape a fire, a sprinkler system is really the only way to make sure they’re safe if they’re home alone. In the same vein, sprinkler systems also keep you safe from physical and emotional devastation of losing your home and possessions in a fire.
  2. Curtail the environmental impact of a house fire. Home fires emit toxins that pollute our air and wastewater, Bouch says. Today’s homes contain a lot of quick-burning plastic combustibles, he says, exacerbating the problem. According to the HFSC, a sprinkler system can reduce greenhouse gas emissions from a house fire by 98 percent. They also significantly reduce the water needed to fight the fire, and help keep pollutants out of wastewater.
  3. Save firefighter lives. Sprinkler systems can save your life, of course, but they also save the lives of firefighters. This, Bouch says, is because sprinklers keep small fires from erupting into large fires that are more dangerous to fight. If a small fire is contained by the time the truck arrives, the firefighters avoid exposure to smoke and toxins, and they don’t need perform risky rescue maneuvers on a roof that’s about to collapse.
  4. Help reduce the cost of homeowners insurance. On average, people across the nation shell out $1,585 per year on homeowners insurance policies, according to a Nerd Wallet insurance survey. You can save money on your premiums, though, with a residential fire sprinkler system. “Depending on your insurance holder, there are discounts when you have a sprinkler system installed,” Bouch says. The specific discount depends on location, size of the home and other factors. However, the HFSC states on their website that some insurance companies will discount your policy up to 35 percent if you install a sprinkler system. That means the system could pay for itself in a few years.
  5. Attract potential buyers. If you decide to sell your home, a fire sprinkler system could make your home more marketable, the National Fire Sprinkler Association reports. One 2020 poll reported 74 percent of respondents are “more likely to buy a home with fire sprinklers.”

Residential Sprinkler System Cost

The only potential downsides to a home sprinkler system are cost and logistics, especially if you’re installing the system in an existing home.

While the average cost is around $1.35 per square foot, Bouch says, installation is much easier when building a new home. It’s definitely possible (and still recommended) in existing homes, but you’ll need to cut into the walls or ceilings to install sprinkler heads, and figure out how to connect them to water pipes.

 Residential Sprinkler System Maintenance

Once you install a sprinkler system, you can rest easy because maintenance is minimal, Bouch says. He recommends testing the system once a year to ensure the water flows properly and nothing leaks. (The sprinkler heads have valves, just like your other plumbing fixtures.)

Other than ensuring your family has a fire escape plan in place, you don’t need to do anything else. With any luck, you’ll never actually need to find out how well it works.