How Do You Get The Sprinkler Pipe Into The Joists?

Yesterday we stopped by the building to talk to the contractor. During the day I had realized something that was fairly serious… The plans call for the sprinklers to be recessed into the ceiling. But I couldn’t imagine how you’d get the sprinkler pipe threaded through the joists. Even if you could do it while the joists were being installed the sprinkler subcontractor hasn’t done the engineering yet to determine what size pipes go where.

So when I got to the job site one of my first questions to our contractor was “So how do you get the sprinkler pipe into the joists?” There was just a blank look on his on our contractor’s face (initially). First he suggested visible sprinkler pipes, but I said ‘no’ and that Dan would go ballistic if we had to do that. His foreman (vice-president) was standing there and suggested the sprinkler pipe be run along the side and hidden with crown moulding. I reminded him we weren’t putting in crown moulding. He said, well, I guess we’ll have to put it in. I just shook my head ‘no’. Crown moulding just doesn’t work with the aesthetic we’re trying to achieve.

The contractor then said that usually sprinkler pipe is run inside a “second ceiling” – in other words they hang wall studs below the joists and run the pipe in there. BUT that hadn’t been calculated into the floor-to-floor heights that we needed to achieve 8′ ceilings. Needless to say, I was really glad that a moment before he had told me that it looked like we’d get 8’2″ to 8’3″ of ceiling height on the basement level (the rental unit) – we might need that 2 to 3″ for sprinklers.

I then called the architect and he said one other option is to notch the bottom of the joists, put the pipe up into the joists and then patch the bottom of the joist so it regains it’s strength (something you can only do with metal joists). Doesn’t sound like an optimal solution, but at least we have another option.

So it looks like we have two options. One is to lower the ceiling a bit and run the pipes below the joists. The other is to cut into the joists and then patch the bottom of the joists. I’m just glad I thought of it when I did. I’d rather be having this conversation now – when there’s just 1 and a half floors in – than when all the floors are framed. It’s also good that it came up on a Friday. Now the contractor has the weekend to think about it and talk to his plumber. Perhaps the plumber has seen another solution that we haven’t though of yet.

It’ll be interesting to see how it gets resolved…


After writing this I thought up one more solution I like better than the other two… Run the “trunks” for each floor in the western wall. Then run “branches” up and into the joists wherever a head is required. The only complication are heads opposite stairwells, but I think we can work solutions for each of those locations.


It’s now 5 months later and the sprinklers are being put in. The solution was to run short sections of sprinkler pipe through the joists. Here’s a picture showing what I’m talking about (click to see bigger version)…

sprinkler pipe through metal joistsHowever, our plumber only seems comfortable doing that with the smallest diameter pipe. He didn’t want to run any main lines through the joists. So instead of having one sprinkler riser going up through our plumbing wall we have two smaller ones – one for the back of the building and one for the front of the building. Then there are branch lines off of those that either run through the walls or run parallel with the joists. Using that strategy only thin (1″) pipe needs to be snaked through the joists.

Egress, Sprinklers & NYC Townhouses

Having just gone through a rather arduous 5 month process to get DOB approval for our renovations I wanted to comment a bit on what I see as the biggest change in the code for townhouse owners – the fire code.

Simply put townhouses must now be sprinklered when doing a major rehab of the building. Parts of the 2008 code said you didn’t need sprinklers, but other parts said you did. The parts that said you did need sprinklers have won. However, not only does the building need to be sprinklered, but all major rooms need to be sprinklered – not just egress areas as was common in the past.

The only exceptions are 1) areas with less then 65 square feet, 2) bathrooms with less than 80 square feet, and 3) stairwells. In a lot of older townhouses (e.g. SROs) you’ll see stairwells sprinklered, but over the years they found that sprinklers in stairwells were a bad idea since they created a slip hazard as the water cascaded down the stairs. (However, they do still want hallways adjacent to stairs do need to be sprinklered).  As a result townhouse owners have to sprinkler everything except bathrooms, closets, and stairs.

We’ve heard horror stories about what fully sprinklering a building will cost – $100K+ according to some. We’ll find out soon what it will cost in our case, but there are two things that will bring down the cost for us…

First, sprinkler systems in small residential buildings that have 30 or fewer heads can be fed off the domestic water supply, IF the supply is large enough. Our building requires 29 heads, so we just barely sneak in under that provision. We have to find out whether our existing water main connection is sufficient. But at least we won’t need two connections to the main.

Next, thanks to an architect and Harlem townhouse owner who commented here on the blog, we found out that you can have a wet sprinkler system with CPVC piping (“BlazeMaster” brand) in small residential buildings. I’ve heard a number of architects say PVC is prohibited in NYC due to it giving off toxic gasses in a fire, so it’s somewhat ironic that it’s allowed to be the piping for the sprinkler system that fights the fire. A CPVC sprinkler system should be an enormous cost savings since the only other alternative is cast iron pipes – they won’t even allow copper for the sprinkler system since copper melts easily (you’d think plastic would melt even more easily).

The other issue that’s related to fire is that egress areas need a 1-hour fire rating. This means the stairwell, and the hallways connected to the stairwell, must have a 1 hour fire rating. A 1 hour fire rating is stringent, but not terribly difficult to achieve. Basically it means you need thick, solid wood doors off the egress hallways, and the walls around the stairwell (and egress hallways) have to be built a particular way.

This means you can’t have an open floorplan where the stairs are open to the rest of the floor, even though the entire building is sprinklered – at least not without special approval. We were able to get a “reconsideration” that’s allowing us to have an open floor plan on the parlor floor – the bottom floor in our unit. To get the reconsideration we’re having to put in a 1 foot “smoke baffle” around the stairwell. So there will be a 1 foot “wall” coming down from the ceiling in that area. That smoke baffle will prevent smoke from going up into the stairwell. Since fire and smoke spreads up, I think reconsiderations like that would only be granted on the bottom floor of a unit, but I’m not sure.

All in all, the fire code has gotten a lot tougher for townhouse owners. Not having a sprinkler system is not an option. And just throwing a few sprinklers in the egress areas isn’t an option either. But luckily the more extensive sprinklering is balanced by being able to use CPVC piping… We’ll see in a few days what all that will cost…

2008 NYC Building Code Impact On Townhouses

A new building code went into effect about 2 years ago now. Generally the changes were aimed at larger buildings, but a few things affect townhouses.

As I was writing up this post I got a call that our plans were not approved (for the 2nd time) and the issues were largely due to changes in the 2008 code. (Today is definitely a day when it feels like we’re ‘beating upwind’…)


Possibly the biggest change in terms of expense is that most townhouses now require a full sprinkler system. Apparently the new code conflicts itself – part of it says 1 and 2 family homes require sprinklers, another part says they can be exempt. At one point I found the FDNY’s ruling that said that if the townhouse was being restored back to it’s original 1 or 2 family use then sprinklers were not required at all. However, once a DOB plan examiner says they want sprinklers (as in our case) there’s no way FDNY is going to overrule them and say they’re not necessary. Here are the part of the code that were cited by our plan examiner:

903.2.7 Group R. An automatic sprinkler system shall be installed in Group R fire areas. An automatic sprinkler system shall be installed throughout buildings with a main use or dominant occupancy of Group R.

Exception: An automatic sprinkler system shall not be required in detached one- and two-family dwellings and multiple single-family dwellings (town houses), provided that such structures are not more than three stories above grade plane in height and have separate means of egress.

Here’s a summary of the code in graphical format…

NYC sprinkler requirements for single family homesNYC sprinkler requirements for two family homes


So we’re now stuck having to put in a sprinkler system. I’m not sure why, but our architect and his expediter were reading the code only the egress had to be sprinklered so he drew up sprinklers on every stair landing and between the stairs and the front door using “water walls” between the stairs/corridor and the kitchen and the living room. But as I was writing this I got a call saying the plan examiner wants the entire building sprinklered (which is consistent with the part of the code he cited). That could be cost prohibitive for us – so it’s potentially very bad news…

The reason why any sprinkler system is so expensive is because sprinklers have to plumbed with cast iron pipe. Copper melts in a fire. The problem is our connection to the water main may not be big enough to support the demand put on it by the sprinklers. So that means we may have to upgrade our connection to the water main or get a dedicated connection to the main for the sprinkler system. That’s major money because it requires tearing up the sidewalk and touching the water main for the street.

We need to get estimates, but the sprinkler system the DOB plan examiner wants will cost WELL over $100K. Now we have to figure out what can be cut so we can afford the sprinkler system. So we’ve hit a pretty major roadblock.

CORRECTION: The sprinklers turned out to not be all that expensive. It wasn’t broken out, but I’m guessing maybe $30K plus $14,500 for a new water main connection.

Smoke Detectors

A more minor point is that all smoke detectors in the building now have to be interconnected – so if one goes off they all go off (great fun when what you’re looking gets a bit smokey).

Egress Stairs

Another change is that the 2008 code now requires that the stairwell continue up to the roof. Typically the way townhouses were built was to have a hatch going up to the roof. Now you need a bulkhead with  a full 3′ wide staircase and a door.

27-375(i) (1)(b) – “Buildings exceeding three stories in height shall be provided with one stairway at least three feet in width enclosed in fire-retarding partitions with a fire resistive rating of one hour protected by FPSC doors leading directly to the street and to the roof bulkhead.”

That’s less of an expense than a sprinkler system, but if you’ve got original staircases the question is how to match the style of the current stairs on the staircase going up to the roof. And what happens if you’re staircases aren’t a full 3′ wide? That could be a bit costly – or you’ll have a different type of staircase going the last flight.

There is one good thing about requiring bulkheads – if you put south facing windows in the bulkhead it’s better than having a skylight. The problem with skylights is that they don’t capture much of the low winter light (when you want as much light and heat gain as possible) and they capture too much of the high summer sun – making the building hot and increasing your air conditioning bills. Bulkhead windows get the maximum amount of winter sun and heat (lowering your heating bills) and capture less sun and heat in the summer (lowering your air conditioning bills).

Energy Considerations

Another frustration that relates to the 2008 code is that the plan examiner wants a crazy amount of detail on the energy usage of the building. The code is pretty clear that there are multiple ways to prove energy efficiency. Our architect did one of those ways (using a goverment program that calculates energy efficiency), but the plan examiner said that wasn’t good enough. He wants details on every window, exterior door, and light fixture.

If Your Buying A Townhouse…

If you’re in the process of building a townhouse that needs a lot of work (or already own one) – realize the 2008 code will impact you greatly, as it’s affecting us. The townhouses you may be seeing that are renovated were typically renovated under the old, 1968, building code. You have to meet  a much more demanding standard now.

If you can find a townhouse that has plans that were approved under the old building code then you can use those plans provided the permits have been kept current. But if the permits expired make the current get them renewed before you purchase the property. But realize you’ll be able to make minor changes to those plans. Talk to an architect and an expediter to make sure you can build under those plans. If the owner can’t get the plans renewed, lower your bid price substantially to compensate yourself for having to meet 2008 code.

If you’re buying a townhouse without approved plans (the norm) make sure you overestimate your renovation costs to compensate for things like full sprinkler systems. It can get expensive to meet 2008 code.