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If the cost to install sprinklers is more than 15% of the total cost of the renovations, then sprinklers are not required

In 2008 I had a disagreement over sprinklers with the City of Gardner Building Department and Fire Department. Both ordered me to install sprinklers in a 6-family that I was renovating. I refused because I felt their demands were not supported by the law. I offered instead to repair the existing fire alarm and to monitor it 24X7.

What is the law on sprinklers? This is a summary so you should read the actual laws.

MGL 148, 26G requires that all buildings over 7,500 gross sq. ft. must have sprinklers but only if the “town or city accepts the provisions of this section” (no longer required as of 4-13-2009, they are slowly closing the loopholes on us!) and only “in accordance with the provisions of the state building code” (still there) and only if there is “sufficient water and water pressure” (still there).

MGL 148, 26I requires all buildings 4-family or more to have sprinklers but only if the “city, town or district accepts the provisions of this section” and only if they are “substantially rehabilitated so as to constitute the equivalent of new construction and occupied in whole or in part for residential purposes” .

So then we go to see what the “provisions of the state building code” are that the above sections are talking about:

In a very obscure section of the building code under 780 CMR 3401.1 (definitions) I found what I was looking for. Under the definition of “substantial renovation” it says that if the cost to install sprinklers is more than 15% of the total cost of the renovations, then sprinklers are not required (the language of the 6th edition which was in force at the time was a little different but close enough).

I wrote to the Building Inspector telling him the quotes for a sprinkler system came at about $30,000 plus $15,000 needed to open the road to install a second water supply for a total of $45,000. When compared to my estimated total cost of renovation, the sprinklers came to be way more than 15%. I told him that $45,000 is 15% of $300,000 and my renovations would not come to be even half that. Plus I told them that the City of Gardner hadn’t accepted MGL 148, 26I so….

As you can imagine he was not happy that I was not easily persuaded to give the Fire Department and the City what I thought was a free Christmas Gift and they fought back. I received an order from the Fire Chief to install the sprinklers and the Building Inspector had ordered me to hire an architect (which I did but not before I made sure he agreed with my interpretation of the law). The inspector accused me that the architect was “in my pocket” to which I replied “Duh!” Finally they backed down and I have a 24X7 monitored fire alarm system which I repaired as I had promised to.

Months later the City of Gardner quietly voted to change the law and accept MGL 148, 26I and other relevant subsections.

I saved $45,000 because the law and my specific situation did not require me to spend it. However, many would have said “you can’t fight with city hall”, borrowed the money and spend it. I don’t judge them, but I wasn’t in the mood to do that.

If you are about to do renovations, print that section of the building code (see attached) and tell your local official that the Building Code requires sprinklers only if they are not too expensive (15% or less) compared to your total cost of renovation!

We all should make sure that the 15% rule is not removed in the next addition.