Of Cabbages and Kings, Sprinklers and Air Bags

By Martin Harris

Martin Harris

Seen in retrospect, my high-school-years English-Lit exposure to Lewis Carroll wasn’t all it could have been, but I’ve informally learned better since (isn’t that the real job of formal education?) and now I can unabashedly borrow from him just as he borrowed from Shakespeare. Here’s the quote, from his poem “the Walrus and the Carpenter” “…of shoes and ships and sealing-wax…” (dissimilar objects, take note) as a lead-in to Humble Scribe comparison of similarly dissimilar building sprinklers and vehicular air-bags. LC doesn’t follow up with a ‘they’re really similar’ reversal, but HS does. Specific similarity: both are mostly seen (there have been complaints about sprinkler-water damaging computers in burning buildings, and about deployed air-bags causing bruises on the skins of crashing drivers) as “good things” and both are seen as candidates for mandatory enforcement. Air-bags already are; residential sprinklers are about to be: when the 2009 International Residential Code is adopted at State and municipal level, as it soon will be, sprinklers will be a required built-in feature for new single- and two-family residential construction. It’s most likely that most States, even those which, like Vermont, typically add their own requirements in such adoptions, won’t even think about deleting this one. The more interesting (and typically unasked) question is: why mandatory?

The usual Progressive-legislator answer (crudely stated) is ” our subjects are too dumb to know the right thing and do it, so we, the brighter adults in the room, have to force them.” The alternative -holding widespread repetitions of their beloved and supposedly persuasive “public conversations” about the cost (low) and benefit (high) of residential sprinkler installation-has been remarkable in its absence. It’s even more remarkable when you consider the intensive “public conversation” efforts in education, (now being expanded to defend the rising costs of higher-ed against the increasingly obvious shrinkage of educational results) in an intensive campaign to argue the cost-benefit case where compelling evidence is absent, compared to the remarkable clarity of the numbers in the sprinkler case (which isn’t being argued). It’s all the more remarkable when you add in Progress. That’s progress of technological aspect, as in pipe and fittings, not progress of political aspect, as in typical Golden Dome behavior.

When the first “automatic fire suppression” system was invented by unlicensed New Haven, CT, piano-factory entrepreneur Henry Parmelee in 1874, (a Plumber.com article says that the White House got living-quarters piped water two years later) the trade had fairly recently abandoned pump-logs for rigid steel pipe with threaded joints, and for the next century the best advance in sprinkler installation was the commercial suspended ceiling design which gained widespread builder acceptance (no politician-driven “public conversations”) in the post-WWII years because of its cost/benefits advantages, specifically the above-the-tiles space available for easy pipe runs. It wasn’t nearly so easy in traditional commercial or residential work until the first flexible piping was introduced about a century later (the Pex brand arrived in the 1980’s) and builders soon used it for retro-fits where the tubing could be threaded through existing framing, an installation impossible for rigid piping. The Blazemaster brand, labeled specifically for sprinkler installation, followed some after. Now there are push-on fitting for coupling, tees, and the sprinkler heads themselves. As a result, installation cost per square foot of construction has plummeted. When you factor in the fire-insurance deductions offered by most companies, you can see why the payback time for sprinklers has shrunk down into the five-year range in most cases. Similarly for residential retro-fits: installation is now so easy even a home-owner can do it, most frequently not with a whole-house installation but with heads installed only in the few higher-risk areas, what the Codes call a “Limited-Area Sprinklers system”, an option which hasn’t received the “public conversation” it deserves, either.

In the bad old days, when threading rigid pipe through framed construction was a pricey operation (and one which couldn’t even be thought of for retro-fits) the largest element in sprinkler costs was piping installation, not the questions surrounding water-supply quantity, availability during power-loss, and related matters epitomized by the so-called Xmas-tree of controls typical for a commercial installation. Now the cost question focuses on these latter items (except for LAS systems, which have Code approval to be supplied from domestic water plumbing) and it serves as a frequent owner deterrent. Many owners don’t even know the LAS option is even available, but here the Codes are conflicting: the allowed number of sprinkler heads in an approveable LAS system varies from 6 to 20, depending on the Code you read. Were there no Code mandate, an owner could install as many heads as he wishes (as he now can, pre-mandate).

How effective would a Code mandate be, assuming that the objective is to get sprinklers into as many houses as possible? HS guess: Control, not sprinklers, is the Progressive goal, and the numbers bear out the HS skepticism. There are some 50 million SF and TF housing units in the country (the remaining 40 or so are in multi-family units) and of the existing stock only a tiny fraction is sprinklered. The new mandate guarantees sprinklers in the 500,000 or so new units built yearly, (an abnormally-low 300,000 this year) but deters installation in the existing maybe-45 million. If the Progressives really had Hoover-ite ambitions -a chicken in every pot (but maybe not the car in every garage part) and a sprinkler system in every dwelling-they’d go for publicizing the cost-benefit equation, not legislating the mandate. They don’t, so they won’t. Lewis Carroll could have written a poem on the subject, but Mr. Dodgson (real name) had penned “Alice” nine years before Mr. Parmelee created a whole new niche for subsequent regulatory intervention. Neither could have imagined what would ensue. And LC, whose quote included “cabbages and kings” could have commented on occasional ruler-vegetable similarity, intellect-wise, but, as a courteous subject of a reigning queen, wisely chose to defer.