An overview of smoke and fire alarm requirements • July-August 2017
August 17, 2017 - Residential fires account for 73% of all fire-related fatalities in Canada. Accidental fires are preventable and, as an industry, we have taken—and continue to take—precautions to protect public safety. Post-fire inspections often reveal dated or disabled safety devices, like smoke alarms, exposing a hard truth those in the industry already know... the proper maintenance of safety devices is oft overlooked.
We all have a role to play in reducing the risk of fire at home and at work, which is why one of my guiding principles is to educate communities on fire safety by partnering with fire service professionals and distributors.
The industry is doing its part to adapt to the changing landscape. To ensure the safety of contractors, builders, landlords and homeowners alike, fire signalling is a heavily regulated industry. Residential dwellings and commercial buildings must meet the standards of several national regulatory overseers, including the National Building Code (NBC), which is updated every five years, the National Fire Code (NFC) and the Provincial Code.
Where the NBC typically governs new construction and the NFC governs existing construction, both codes provide the minimum fire safety requirements for buildings and facilities. In some cases, the codes can be supplemented to better address regional needs.
Modelled after the NBC, regional requirements must also be followed. The version of the NBC used depends on several factors, such as the province’s political climate, environmental issues and more, all of which impact how soon the current NBC can be adopted. Smoke alarms in particular are a standard requirement for residential homes and commercial buildings across the country. The NBC outlines a set of alarm requirements regarding placement, temporal sound needs, power supply and connection.
The location of the smoke alarm is very important for fire prevention and residential safety. According to building code, smoke alarms must be installed in each dwelling unit and in each sleeping area within a dwelling unit (according to NFPA [National Fire Protection Association in the U.S.], one-quarter of all home fires start in the bedroom). Hallways connected to bedrooms must also have an alarm on or near the ceiling. In addition to these specific areas—each storey—including the basement must have an alarm installed.
The smoke alarm sound pattern is the audio trigger with which people are most familiar. The sound patterns of alarms must meet the temporal patterns of alarm signals, or be a combination of temporal pattern and voice message. Commonly, a false/nuisance alarm (e.g. from cooking) may result in the end user removing the batteries or removing AC power from their alarm. The new Hush Feature on alarms addresses this issue and allows nuisance alarms to be temporarily silenced.
The placement and interconnection of alarms go hand-in-hand. With multiple units in the home, smoke alarms should be wired so the activation of one will cause all alarms within the dwelling unit to sound. This safety precaution is to warn and alert everyone in the home, regardless of where they may be. You only have about three (3) minutes to escape from the home when the smoke alarm first sounds.
For all residential new builds, smoke alarms must be installed with a permanent connection to an electrical circuit. If the home’s regular power supply is interrupted, a battery back-up is required as a secondary power source. The risk of fire increases during power outages because people use candles and alternative sources for heat. For older homes with battery-powered alarms, the batteries must be changed annually: 10-year lithium power cell smoke alarms are currently available, eliminating the hassle of having to replace the batteries every year.
In addition to the national standards, some provinces also have their own individual requirements. For example, one interesting requirement in Ontario that has been adopted is a visual component for smoke alarms. According to the Ontario Building Code, a visual signalling component must conform to the requirements in the National Fire Alarm & Signalling Code. The luminous intensity for visual signalling components required are to be installed anywhere a smoke alarm is required, with a minimum of 175 cd.
In British Columbia, residential secondary suites within a single-family dwelling have additional smoke alarm requirements, as well. If the secondary suite is not installed with a sprinkler unit, additional alarms are needed in each bedroom, hallway and storey, and the alarm system must be interconnected to the other residential unit. This means that when a smoke alarm sounds in the residential unit, the alarms in the secondary suites will also sound.
Carbon monoxide alarm
On top of residential smoke alarms in the home, carbon monoxide alarms are also an important safety device for homeowners and landlords. In fact, CO poisoning is the leading cause of accidental poisoning deaths in North America. As per the 2010 NBC, it is mandatory for all new homes to have a carbon monoxide detector installed. CO detectors are crucial in identifying a problem. Often referred to as the “silent killer”, CO is extremely dangerous as it has no odour, taste or colour.
It is recommended that detectors be installed in hallways and outside sleeping areas. To ensure whole home safety, I suggest placing CO alarms on every level. Provincial fire codes determine whether all homes (new and existing) require the device. Ontario and The Yukon require all new and old homes with fuel-burning appliances, a fireplace or attached garage to be fitted with CO detectors.
Several types of CO alarms are readily available on the market: hardwire interconnectable, battery-operated, and plug-in + battery back-up. The alarms are designed to sound before there is an immediate life threat since the poisonous gas cannot be seen, smelled or tasted. Standards require residential CO alarms to sound when exposed to certain levels of CO and exposure times as outlined below:
• If the CO alarm is exposed to 400 ppm of CO, it must alarm between 4 and 15 min.
• If the CO alarm is exposed to 150 ppm of CO, it must alarm between 10 and 50 min.
• If the CO alarm is exposed to 70 ppm of CO, it must alarm between 60 and 240 min.
A set of standards are determined for Canada, each province and each municipality. As an industry, we must be committed to the safety of our communities. Following the codes, proper procedures, and being diligent in maintaining smoke and CO alarms is our responsibility. Ω
John Ward is the director of sales at BRK Brands Inc., a manufacturer of products providing fire and CO protection. With over 25 years of experience in the home safety sector, John also conducts seminars with fire departments and building officials to keep them up-to-date on the latest products available for home safety pertaining to fire and carbon monoxide.
* This article also appears in the July-August 2017 edition of Electrical Business Magazine. Check out our ARCHIVE page for back issues.
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