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Taking Fire Safety Into Their Own Hands

Homeowners Voluntarily Install Residential Sprinkler System

Set in a picturesque, bedroom community north of Boston is a gorgeous, newly constructed 7,000-ft2 home. This grand residence, located 1,300 ft from the street up a secluded windy knoll, is tucked into a beautifully wooded property in a unique town.

It’s unique in that the town of Boxford, Massachusetts has no town water, so every home has its own well. Home lots must be a two-acre minimum, and there are no fire hydrants. Boxford is also a place where fire prevention is a priority – from the homebuilder to the homeowner, and from the firefighter to the town building department.

The modern home that sparked this article was crafted with all the technological advances of the day, in a resort-like setting, and includes a residential fire sprinkler system. Building their dream home, this forward-thinking, young couple with four small children plan to welcome their grandchildren there someday. Foremost on their minds was fire safety. Concerned with the limitations of access to a water source in case of a fire, response time of a small-town fire department given weather conditions, and a challenging driveway, they turned to their builder Steve Howell with Howell Custom Builders located in Boxford, Massachusetts, for options.

“The homeowners and I discussed installing fire sprinklers right out of the gate,” comments Howell. “I had experience with a residential system, having installed one in a large home we built for a customer in rural Maine.”

He continued: “Another reason for adding a system was the 120-ft rise up a quarter-mile-long driveway. That length, and the design of it, would be a real challenge for a fire truck, especially in inclement weather.”

Asked about his experience and knowledge of fire sprinkler systems, Howell shared that his college roommate was Nick Groos, whose grandfather started the Viking Corporation. As they would connect through the years, Groos would say, “Steve, when are you going to put a system in one of these homes you build?”

Interestingly, in Boxford when a driveway is longer than 1,000 ft, the fire department will recommend to the builder and homeowner to install a residential system. Fire Chief Brian Geiger explains: “Such recommendations are then brought to the town’s building committee for approval. Boxford is a slow town; we had our last fire nine months ago. We are fortunate that we have the time to donate to fire prevention in our homes. We spend a lot of time in homes making sure everything is to code, especially with these systems. We know that fire sprinklers give a homeowner the extra time needed to get out of a burning home, and that saves lives. In a town with no town water, no hydrants and a call fire department, this team approach to fire safety is very important.”

The fire department works closely with the town’s Inspector of Buildings Bob Aldenberg on permits and inspections. Aldenberg, who has worked in town government for many years, actually talks to homeowners looking to build about installing a residential sprinkler system.

“In this town, we’ve got several homes with these systems. Once the fire department makes the recommendation, the building committee is going to follow it. We’ve got a home in the woods with a system whose water source is their well, which was determined as sufficient, and a home furthest back on a shared driveway with a tank in their basement.”

Aldenberg continues: “This most recent home has two 300-gallon water tanks in the lower level. I make a point to discuss this with any potential home builder. As a town of 8,300 residents in 2,400 homes, not many homes are built in a year, so the AHJs and town officials can focus on getting things right.”

Two 300-gallon water tanks in the basement supply the residential sprinkler system.

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) codes and standards are followed, as well as Massachusetts Fire Prevention Code 148, section 26G, that requires homes built over 7,500 ft2 be required to install a fire sprinkler system. Boxford takes that further with its recommendation for a system installed where the home’s driveway is over 1,000 ft.

Once the decision to install in this most recent build was made, Metro Swift Sprinkler Corporation, Peabody, Massachusetts, was chosen as the sprinkler contractor. Designer Bob Belmonte and the Builder Steve Howell, agreed that the design and installation were tricky. As the home design changed, so did the sprinkler design. Some of the fittings had to be adjusted onsite as well.

“Many elements of the design had to be figured out in the field as they were building it,” remarks Belmonte.

Tricky areas in this Cape-style home included closet spaces, eaves, and working around all the high-end lighting and plumbing. When it was complete, the heads were barely noticeable in the ceilings and the house was a model of safety.

Now enjoying their beautiful new house, the homeowners are content with their decision to include residential sprinklers: “We couldn’t be happier with how the project turned out. With the challenges of getting fire equipment up to our home and access to water, this was the best decision we could have made for our family’s safety and well-being.”

We in the industry couldn’t agree more.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Wendy Callahan is executive director for AFSA’s Connecticut Chapter and lives in Boxford, Massachusetts. She previously served on the AFSA National staff and can be reached via email at

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