The Single Best Way to Fire-Proof Your Home

Fire sprinkler systems are still rare in single-family houses, but once you find out how effective they are at saving both property and lives, you may wonder why.

By Donna Boyle Schwartz | Updated Jul 29, 2017 2:46 PM

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Did you know that in the United States fires kill more people than all non-fire natural disasters combined? Perhaps even more alarming, the vast majority of fire deaths occur in the home. Every day seven people die in a house fire. Though we’d all like to think we’re safe from harm under our own roofs, statistics show that there’s a house fire every 86 seconds. Preparation and care are the only safeguards against this ever-present risk. Faced with this potential for loss of life, or at least catastrophic property damage, some homeowners opt to install a residential fire sprinkler system. In fact, the building codes in some states actually require such protection for homes. But even in states where sprinkler systems aren’t mandated, many homeowners embrace them anyway. Why? It’s pretty simple. As Daniel O’Brian, a technical specialist with, puts it, “When it comes to the safety of your family and the protection of your greatest investment, it’s so much better to be safe than sorry.”

Of course, in the typical home, smoke detectors already offer a measure of protection. But O’Brian points out that while “absolutely necessary,” smoke detectors provide only an alert. A sprinkler system takes fire protection a critical step further by working to control, suppress, and eliminate a house fire almost as soon as it starts. “That’s a meaningful difference,” O’Brian says. Studies have shown that while smoke detectors cut your risk of dying in a fire by half, a sprinkler system virtually eliminates the risk altogether, giving residents a 97 percent chance of surviving a fire in the home. The key factor? According to O’Brian, it’s that fire sprinklers activate “more or less immediately,” well before emergency services could be expected to arrive on the scene. In other words, while smoke detectors “only give you a window of opportunity to escape the building,” O’Brian says, a fire sprinkler system acts “like your own personal fire department.” In terms of effectiveness, he concludes, “there’s no comparing the two.”


Despite everything, fire sprinkler systems remain relatively rare in residential settings. In part, that may be due to a widespread misunderstanding of how they operate. As O’Brian notes, “Almost everyone has seen a movie or a TV show where all the sprinkler heads in the house go off at the same time, because someone in the kitchen burned a piece of toast.” Indeed, there’s a perception that fire sprinkler systems are finicky and oversensitive, often doing more harm than good. But, according to O’Brian, the reality is that fire sprinkler systems are less complicated and “more sophisticated than they usually get credit for.” For example, rather than turn on in unison, each sprinkler head in a given system functions independently. In fact, most of the time, “the sprinkler system only ever goes off in the one room where the fire started,” O’Brian says. So, before a fire gets the chance to grow bigger and spread to other rooms, the sprinkler system suppresses it—without soaking areas unaffected by the incident and without causing extensive, unnecessary water damage along the way.

Among the fire sprinkler systems typically installed in homes, there are two main types, distinguished primarily by their plumbing configurations:

Integrated systems tie into the household plumbing that carries potable water to the cooking, bathing, and laundry fixtures of the home. Generally speaking, it’s most cost-effective to install integrated sprinkler systems in new constructions.

Stand-alone systems rely on a dedicated storage tank and pump, separate and apart from the regular household plumbing. Because of the additional components they involve, stand-alone sprinkler setups usually rank as the more expensive of the two system types.

For either type of system, homeowners may choose from a broad range of sprinkler heads. While some feature the familiar metal-spoke design frequently seen in commercial buildings, others recess into the ceiling and include a cover plate that makes the unit less noticeable and more appropriate for private homes. That said, although different sprinkler heads sport different designs, “they all pretty much work the same way,” O’Brian says. A typical fire sprinkler head contains a glass ampule filled with temperature-sensitive liquid. Behind the ampule, pipes keep water under constant pressure, ready and waiting. If a fire breaks out and the liquid inside the ampule reaches a designated threshold temperature, the glass ampule shatters, allowing the sprinkler head to release water into the room. Not every sprinkler head employs the same spray pattern and flow rate, though. The right choice for a given room often depends on its layout and square footage. For help navigating the many options, consider consulting your local plumbing and heating contractor or the experts at

When it comes to planning and executing the installation of a fire sprinkler system, O’Brian says, “You’re going to need to hire help. This isn’t a DIY situation.” Of course, involving professionals in the project makes the proposition more expensive. But at least in the case of new homes, the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition estimates a modest total, somewhere between 1 and 2 percent of the total cost of construction. For retrofit applications, however, budgets run the gamut, because there are so many variables from home to home and market to market. Suffice it to say that while it’s certainly possible to outfit an existing home with a brand-new sprinkler system, it’s more difficult and, by extension, more expensive. Bear in mind, however, that such systems often qualify homeowners for discounted rates on insurance. While the average insurer offers 7 percent savings, some premiums go down by 15 percent or more. In the end, though, it’s not about dollars and cents. Instead, it’s about the safety of your family and the protection of your home, and as O’Brian concludes, “You really can’t put a price tag on that!”


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