Clouds of black smoke reached far into the sky behind the Lehigh Township municipal building on Oct. 24. Before the firefighters could be expected to reach the fire the living room was in flames. However, Lehigh Township firefighters were already on hand because the fire was the first half of a residential sprinkler demonstration held by the fire company.
The fire company received a $1,000 grant - one of only 100 in the entire country. There were four or five in the state, said Roger Spadt, fire marshal. The grants were provided by the Home Fire Sprinkler Association.
A second room had piping across the top, the source of water for the sprinklers with water provided by the fire company. Each fire was started in a wastepaper can in a corner of the room which is a difficult place to put a fire out, said Spadt.
The houses were furnished with yard sale and donated furniture.
In the ceiling of the second room there was a sprinkler cover that drops off when it reaches 135 degrees and the sprinkler system is set off at 155 degrees. Chris Custer of C&C Fire Sprinkler Specialties designs and installs system. He donated the sprinkler used in the demonstration.
For a 2,500-square-foot house Custer estimated an additional cost of $5,000 to $6,000 in new construction. There are variables such as the source of water.
"It's more important to save a life than to worry about the cost," Spadt said.
Builders' groups are trying to prevent a requirement that all new homes include a sprinkler system because of the added cost. Spadt said after seeing the demonstration people should call their legislators and offer support for the requirement.
In both houses the smoke alarms took about 15 seconds to go off. But after that things took a different route. The first fire engulfed the entire room in five minutes. The room was gutted in that short time and the firefighters put it out.
In case of a real house fire firefighters could not reach it in that amount of time if they had to leave from the firehouse.
The second fire popped the cover in one minute 10 seconds and in two minutes 35 seconds the sprinkler came on. The fire immediately stopped growing and slowly decreased in size. The fire company could have reached the fire in the nine minutes it took the sprinkler to put it out.
Most furnishings in the area were wet but the house was still useable. There are multiple sprinkler heads in a house. Each one protects a 12-by-12 foot space. The only one to go off is where the heat becomes great enough to start it. There would be some smoke damage in the immediate area.
In the first instance even if the entire house did not burn it would be months to restore or replace it. In the five minutes the unsprinklered demo room was allowed to burn it was gutted.
A sprinkler uses 25 gallons of water per minute and causes less water damage than a fire hose at 250 gallons per minute.
Fire Chief Rich Hildebrand said there were a lot of chemicals in a house fire and it was gases that spread the fire by jumping across areas. He said it was poisonous and nothing like a campfire.
In firefighters' gear the firemen are comfortable to 400 degrees but a fire such as the unsprinklered one could be over 1,000 degrees. An aluminum can was placed in each room. Aluminum melts at 1,200 degrees and the one in the second room was still standing after the fire was out.
"A lot of manhours went into this project," said Spadt. "A dumpster for cleanup had been donated by Dumpster on Wheels. We'll be doing one or two demonstrations a year. The next one to be held in spring will be a kitchen fire."
Portions of the wall in the gutted room were clean. Hildebrand said it was an area where there was a lot of energy - one of the things considered when the reason for a fire is being investigated.
Champ Holman from Dave Argall's office and the Laury's Station Fire Company came out to see the demonstration.
According to National Fire Protection Association standards sprinklers and smoke alarms together cut the risk of dying in a home fire by 82 percent relative to having neither.