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Business Guidance

Low-rise Residential Sprinkler Systems: NFPA 13 vs. NFPA 13R

5 minute read time

Whether your organization builds, owns or operates residential facilities, it’s critical to be aware of the fire protection measures and sprinkler system requirements that apply to these types of properties. Specifically, when it comes to low-rise residential buildings, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has varying standards—including NFPA 13 and NFPA 13R.

At first glance, adopting NFPA 13R requirements may seem like a more simple and low-cost option for your organization than following NFPA 13 protocols. However, there are several residential property factors to review before deciding which standard to adopt.

To determine which NFPA standard your organization should adhere to, it’s important to carefully consider the overall applicability of these two standards, as well as how well each of these standards would support your fire protection needs. Review the following guidance for an outline of the key differences between NFPA 13 and NFPA 13R.

NFPA 13 vs. NFPA 13R

Put simply, the main purpose of NFPA 13 is to promote both life safety and the preservation of the property itself (including its contents). As such, a residential building that follows NFPA 13 requirements is considered “fully sprinklered”.

This means that its sprinkler system’s coverage extends throughout the entirety of the property—even in unoccupied areas (e.g., attics and closets). Such a level of protection can help give building occupants more time to exit the premises safely during a fire, as well as minimize the severity of physical property damages.

NFPA 13 protocols can be applied to a wide range of commercial properties—including residential buildings. The following residential facilities are likely to adopt NFPA 13 requirements:

  • Nursing homes
  • Health care facilities
  • Large hotels
  • Multistory residential properties with more than four stories

NFPA 13R, on the other hand, was developed in 1989 due to the widespread success of residential sprinkler systems. Unlike NFPA 13, NFPA 13R requirements are only applicable to certain residential properties, with the main purpose solely focused on ensuring life safety and allowing building occupants enough time to escape the facility during a fire rather than property preservation.

That being said, a residential property that follows NFPA 13R protocols would not be considered fully sprinklered. Under this standard, sprinkler system coverage is not necessary within particular building areas—such as attics, closets, porches and bathrooms. Essentially, sprinkler system coverage can be focused on areas where a fire would pose the greatest risk to building occupant safety.

The following residential facilities are likely to adopt NFPA 13R requirements: 

  • Smaller hotels and motels
  • Apartment buildings
  • Larger single-story residential properties or multistory residential properties with four stories or less

There are several reasons why NFPA 13R may seem like the more attractive standard for residential properties to follow. Due to sprinkler system coverage differences, adopting NFPA 13R requirements can contribute to reduced water discharge demands in residential properties, usually resulting in smaller system pipe sizing.

Further, NFPA 13R protocols can also permit a shorter duration of water supply than that of NFPA 13 requirements. Such a difference can be especially beneficial for residential properties that utilize a water storage tank as a sprinkler system water supply, seeing as this means that a smaller storage tank can be implemented.

Lastly, lowered sprinkler system coverage requirements that accompany NFPA 13R can decrease overall system installation costs and minimize the likelihood of specialized systems being necessary in various sections of a property (e.g., a dry pipe sprinkler system in the attic).

Additional NFPA 13R Considerations

Despite the perceived benefits of adopting NFPA 13R protocols, there are some additional considerations to keep in mind. First, residential properties that implement NFPA 13R requirements over NFPA 13 protocols may encounter higher commercial insurance costs.

After all, NFPA 13R permits reduced sprinkler system distribution in certain building areas, increasing the risk of more severe property damage and subsequently larger claim expenses in the event of a fire. This can make residential properties that adhere to NFPA 13R seem riskier to protect by insurers, resulting in higher property coverage rates.

Second, NFPA 13R is far less flexible than NFPA 13 in the realm of which residential properties it can be applied to. While NFPA 13 is applicable to a variety of commercial buildings—both residential and nonresidential—NFPA 13R is essentially only applicable to low-risk residential structures that consist of four stories or less.

What’s more, any residential property that incorporates additional commercial elements on the premises—such as a small hotel including a restaurant or retail store on-site—is considered inapplicable to NFPA 13R due to the presence of nonresidential spaces. With this in mind, it’s crucial to determine whether your organization even falls in the limited scope of NFPA 13R applicability.

Furthermore, if your organization has plans to eventually add more stories to its residential properties or establish other commercial features within these buildings, adhering to NFPA 13R protocols now may only lead to costly sprinkler system design changes in the future.

Above all, it’s important to note that NFPA standards—although commonly utilized—are not universal. Rather, these standards are only applicable if they are adopted by state and local fire protection regulations. Many states and municipalities adhere to NFPA standards, but doing so is not required.

Most states enforce NFPA 13 for residential properties that exceed four stories and NFPA 13R for residential buildings with four stories or less. However, it’s always best to review state laws and local building codes before determining which NFPA standard your organization should follow.

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This Risk Insights is not intended to be exhaustive nor should any discussion or opinions be construed as legal advice. Readers should contact legal counsel or an insurance professional for appropriate advice. © 2021 Zywave, Inc. All rights reserved.