A Montgomery County law requiring sprinklers in new garden apartments and condominiums finally went into effect this week, more than a year after the County Council passed the ordinance.

But part of the law requiring similar systems in town houses is on hold because a task force developing regulations for this type of housing has been running behind schedule.

The sprinkler requirement only covers apartment and condominium buildings that are four stories tall or less. To offset the $1-a-square-foot costs of the sprinklers, builders have been allowed to boost the height of planned three-story buildings to four stories and to double the distance between fire walls.

distance between fire-walls.

Although state law already requires that high-rise buildings -- those with at least five stories -- have sprinkler systems, Montgomery County has become the first jurisdiction in the Washington area to require sprinkler systems in garden apartments and condominiums. It joins a growing number of jurisdictions across the country that are requiring residential "quick-response" sprinklers, which differ from conventional fire sprinklers in that they respond five times faster to the same amount of heat as older models, according to John Best, Montgomery's chief fire marshal.

Prince George's County is considering a residential sprinkler bill that is more extensive than Montgomery's. It would require builders to install sprinklers in detached single-family homes.

The sprinklers "keep toxic gases from building up," Best said. "They allow people to live through a fire that otherwise would kill them."

The task force dealing with sprinkler regulations for town houses has been working on them since last November. The council passed the sprinkler law in August 1986.

"They're not moving very fast," said Rose Crenca, County Council president. She said the task force, consisting of fire department officials and building industry representatives, should have made its recommendations and drafted the regulations for the council to approve by Sept. 1.

"Presumably, they could have done it in a couple of months. They have to consider everything that saves money, but they shouldn't be taking this long. These people know the construction codes. But even I could make a couple of phone calls in a week and find out everything I need to know," Crenca said.

"I can't expect volunteers to spend all their time on this, but they have had over a year to work on this. They should be willing to spend a little time. We're providing the staff to do the legwork," Crenca said.

Robert Seely, construction code division chief in the county's Department of Environmental Protection and a member of the task force, attributed the problem to the task force's inability to agree on construction code changes to offset the cost of the sprinklers, which could cost between $1,200 to $3,500 a house. Builders "think the costs of providing sprinklers in town houses are high. They were hoping for more code trade-offs," he said.

"Unfortunately, there are not as many savings in town houses as there were in apartments. Sprinkler systems will add to the cost of the construction and that will be passed onto the buyer," Seely said.

Construction code changes that the task force has agreed upon include allowing builders to put electrical outlets in common walls and reducing the time those walls must be able to withstand heat before catching fire from two hours to one hour, he said.

But William Sonntag, a task force member representing the Suburban Maryland Building Industry Association, said these measures do not come close to offsetting the expense of installing the sprinkler systems.

"We were hopeful that more accommodations could be identified before the regulations go into effect. Sprinklers will be a major cost to install in homes. And we have a significant affordable housing problem in Montgomery County as it is. This is one more requirement that adds to the cost of housing," he said.

But Best, another task force member, defended the group's pace. "There has been a lot of ground to cover. We have had no national codes to follow. When you're talking about life safety, you can't be too hasty," he said.

Best estimated that the task force should complete its work in December. The law requiring sprinklers in town houses would then take effect 30 days later.