The toughest opposition to residential fire sprinklers is from developers who are building homes in rapidly growing cities, where sprinkler costs would be multiplied by thousands of homes.
Estimates for installing sprinklers in new homes range from 70 cents to $1.25 per square foot for tract homes, said Steve Hart, director of the Fire Sprinkler Advisory Board of Southern California, an industry promotion group. A custom home with a cathedral ceiling could soar as high as $2.50 a square foot.
The price tag can increase sharply in areas where water districts assess extra charges for sprinkler systems. Costs also vary with other local requirements, house size and design.
Builders also add their markup, and they usually like to get at least 10%, said Gary Emsiek, Homes by Polygon's vice president for planning.
Sprinkler advocates argue that the cost is only 1% of a home's price--often less than the cost of carpeting. In a relatively affordable area like Fontana, it costs about $2,000 for a 2,000-square-foot tract house. However, for somebody building a custom home, the total could be a lot more.
A client of home designer Wayne Holden ended up with a $6,400 bill for a sprinkler system in his 4,000-square-foot Encinitas home. Plans, fees and hardware cost $5,900, and another $500 was a San Dieguito Water District charge for a larger water meter needed for the system.
Costs at other districts vary considerably. The Olivenhain Municipal Water District, which serves other parts of Encinitas, charges $2,850 for the larger meter because of potential extra water use, said assistant manager David McCollom.
Fontana Water Co. doesn't charge for the larger meter itself, but residents with 1-inch meters pay about $4 a month more than those in unsprinklered houses with five-eighths-inch meters, said secretary Norma Manning.
Holden said the extra cost is what really bothers him about sprinklers, and homeowner's insurance discounts for the systems don't begin to offset the cost.
He also points out that with a smoldering fire in a bed or sofa, the room temperature might not get high enough to trigger a sprinkler before a person succumbs to toxic smoke.
"That's why smoke detectors are absolutely essential," as well as sprinklers, Fullerton Fire Chief Ron Coleman said. Unfortunately, even when homes have smoke detectors, they often aren't working, he said.
Homeowners forget to check sprinklers and sometimes paint over them. Even without human interference, sprinklers can't always control a fire, National Assn. of Home Builders (NAHB) spokesman Richard Morris said.
There are a few situations a home-sprinkler system can't handle, such as an explosion that could damage it or create a fire too large to handle, said Capt. Ronald Hayton of the Los Angeles County Fire Department. Arsonists and brush fires are others.
Systems are designed to have only enough force for one or two heads to go off at one time, which in most cases is enough to control a fire because the sprinklers activate while the fire is still small. Small rooms usually have one sprinkler, while a living room might need two.
How the sprinklers look in those rooms is one of homeowners' biggest concerns. Today's models come in a variety of styles and "designer colors," and are inconspicuous enough that some people don't know they have them, said Glendale Fire Department's Christopher R. Gray, battalion chief and fire marshal.
Sprinkler heads usually protrude an inch or less from the ceiling, although some are recessed or concealed.
But even more than looks, homeowners' biggest worry about the sprinklers is whether they will go off accidentally and drench the house. That's unlikely--the heads' failure rate is 1 in 16 million, said Robert Hagar, director of sales for Fire Chief Inc., a sprinkler installer.
They are not triggered by smoke, so unlike smoke detectors, which can go off at a whiff of overdone toast, sprinklers don't respond until the temperature reaches a certain level (usually 160 to 165 degrees), which melts solder that holds back the water. The heads respond independently, so if one activates, it doesn't set off the rest.
However, they're not perfect.
"If I were to tell you they never had a leak I'd be lying," Hagar said. But out of nearly 8,000 systems the Fontana company has put in, perhaps a dozen had problems, Hagar said, and those were covered by guarantees.
San Clemente residents were guinea pigs for early home sprinklers, but those systems are still working, Begnell said. Problems he's aware of include about 1,000 drippy sprinkler heads that were replaced by the manufacturer several years ago.
Builders provide instructions for the systems, which need little maintenance but should be checked occasionally. Most problems are from human error in installation or upkeep, fire officials said, and sprinkler systems are often more reliable than regular plumbing.