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Alarming standards

Recent regulations have increased the scope for installing hard-wired smoke alarms in new homes and, for the first time, carbon monoxide alarms as well. But electrical contractors and wholesalers need to understand the differences between national Building Regulations around the UK and also the Code of Practice - as Gerald Jones, Kidde Business Manager Professional Channels, explains.

Important Building Regulation amendments came into force in Scotland last year, with guidance on compliance provided in the 2010 'Building Standards Domestic Technical Handbook'. It now requires at least one hard-wired smoke alarm in every principal habitable room - in other words, frequently used rooms for general daytime living purposes - and at least one heat alarm in every kitchen. This is in addition to the previously required smoke alarms in circulation areas. At last, Scottish Standards now meet 'Category LD2' - the minimum requirement of the current Code of Practice for domestic fire alarm systems, BS 5839-6: 2004. This is well-recognised as the definitive guidance for both new and existing dwellings. 

Living Rooms and Kitchens 
BS 5839-6 defines 'categories' - effectively in which areas smoke and/or heat alarms are required. It clearly recommends category LD2 for new, and also many existing, dwellings as a minimum. This requirement means smoke or heat alarms in living rooms and a heat alarm in every kitchen, as well as the usual smoke alarms in circulation areas. This approach has already been taken up in Northern Ireland Building Regulations with 'Technical Booklet E' where compliance with BS 5839-6 simply meets the statutory requirements. It is also in force in Eire, where the current 'Technical Guidance Document B, Fire Safety' refers extensively to the Code of Practice. But for England and Wales, the current Approved Document B effectively requires just smoke alarms in corridors - category LD3 - with heat alarms in some kitchens only. As BS 5839-6 points out, LD3: "might not therefore prevent the death or serious injury of occupants in the room where the fire originates".  It is worth remembering that around half of all domestic fire fatalities occur in the room of fire origination - and more in bedrooms. So, the pressure is on to bring Part B into line now and installers are encouraged to recommend installing more alarms in line with the Code of Practice.

Missed opportunity
However, from the end of 2011, the Welsh Assembly government will be able to draft its own Building Regulations. It has already just passed new legislation requiring fire suppression systems in all new housing in Wales, missing an obvious opportunity to save lives at a much lower cost with more hard-wired smoke and heat alarms. These sprinkler requirements will add a claimed 1-2% - which could actually be much higher - onto the cost of a home. This is a real dis-incentive to housebuilders operating in Wales - and owners and occupiers will also be faced with annual maintenance costs of £75-£150. 
Fire suppression systems have proved to be particularly effective in non-domestic buildings but raise a range of issues when applied to housing. Apart from cost, a detailed study published in 2006 and involving extensive tests demonstrates that sprinklers are not the best solution for most housing anyway. Prepared for the then ODPM by the BRE, 'The effectiveness of sprinklers in residential premises' concludes that: "Smoke alarms, fitted in the room of fire origin, responded typically in half the time required by sprinklers and well before the conditions had become life threatening." The BRE study also concluded that while sprinklers are probably cost-effective for residential care homes, HMOs and tall blocks of flats, they are not for other dwellings.

Better than sprinklers
US experience reinforces these conclusions. A study by the University of Maryland found that hard-wired smoke alarms with a battery backup were over 50% better than sprinklers due to their response time, sensitivity and the fact that many fires are too small to set off a sprinkler system. In fact, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) found that, in family home fires across the US over a 3-year period, 60% of residential sprinklers did not operate. And laboratory tests have demonstrated that fatal levels of gases and smoke were generated in fires that sprinklers failed to put out. Not surprisingly, to date 27 States have opted against mandatory sprinklers in single dwellings. In 2008 the NFPA concluded that: "The chances of surviving a reported home fire when working smoke alarms are present are 99.45%". So, in Wales, there is a much simpler solution than sprinklers to cutting fire deaths and injuries for a negligible cost by addressing the illogical discrepancies between Part B and the Code of Practice - and installing more hard-wired smoke alarms.

The silent killer
Although falling behind with fire safety, Building Regulations for England and Wales have taken a first step with curbing the 'silent killer', carbon monoxide poisoning in the home. Part J, which took effect on 1st October 2010, now requires CO alarms - but only in homes with new or replacement solid fuel installations. But what about other potential CO sources, particularly gas appliances? We know that carbon monoxide poisoning is responsible for around 250 deaths and serious injuries each year but more cases remain unrecognised. Carbon monoxide can be produced by any fuel burning appliances resulting from the incomplete combustion of carbon based fuels including bottled or mains gas, coal, oil and wood. The main difficulty is that the dangers are often far from obvious. There have already been calls from Northern Ireland Ministers for mandatory CO alarms wherever gas heating is installed, following the deaths of two teenage friends in a modern holiday apartment complex last summer.

CO alarms in all homes
As we saw earlier, despite their inconsistencies, Building Regulations around the UK recognise that mandatory smoke alarms in all new housing provide an effective, low-cost means of detecting and warning of fire, irrespective of its source. By its very nature, carbon monoxide justifies exactly the same approach and Part J should demand CO alarms in every new home, not just focus on the single risk of solid fuel heating. And, of course, the same measures should apply consistently throughout the UK. But in the meantime, electrical contractors can help by recommending hard-wired CO alarms to their customers.
Bearing in mind the unknown dangers involved here, it is essential that CO alarms work effectively throughout their design lives. The Health and Safety Executive recommends that: "Before purchasing a CO alarm, always ensure it complies with British Standard EN 50291 and carries a British or European approval mark, such as a Kitemark." This third party approval is essential - just a CE mark is not enough - to demonstrate consistent performance, so ensuring occupant safety and avoiding the legal implications of supplying or fitting unapproved alarms. It is also important to select products that use electrochemical technology with a stable performance over time, proven by independent and accredited laboratories. Manufacturers that produce their own CO cells - the key component - rather than buying them in, can apply tighter quality controls. For example, every Kidde sensor is tested under CO and all products must pass through several key quality testing 'gates' before becoming available for sale. 

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