Understanding Residential Fire Alarm Systems

Go to the codes and get up to date


Here’s a question that begs an answer: Would you walk into a customer’s home and knowingly eliminate their “code mandated” fire detection device? Hopefully, the answer is a resounding “no.”

Yet every day, alarm dealers and system integrators are regularly doing just that, and worse.

Far too often installers without the pre-requisite training on the fire and building codes are installing alarm systems in residences and effectively placing the building occupants in potential jeopardy should a fire or emergency situation occur. Here’s some information you need to know to fully understand residential fire alarm systems and the role of the systems integrator and installer.

Let’s start with these basic definitions:
Smoke Alarm – a single or multiple station alarm responsive to smoke. (NFPA 72(07)-3.3.180) These devices are designed to meet the requirements of ANSI/UL 217, Standard for Safety Single and Multiple Station Smoke Alarms.

Smoke Detector – a device suitable for connection to a circuit with a sensor that responds to a physical stimulus such as heat or smoke. (NFPA 72(07)-3.3.43) These devices are designed to meet the requirements of ANSI/UL 268, Standard for Safety Smoke Detectors for Fire Alarm Signaling Systems.

Fire Alarm System – a system or portion of a combination system that consists of components and circuits arranged to monitor and annunciate the status of fire alarm or supervisory signal-initiating devices and to initiate the appropriate response to these signals.( NFPA 72(07)-3.3.67)

Initial considerations
Far too often in this industry installers use terms which sound synonymous with other terms, yet in fact mean very different things as they pertain to the legal and code defined meanings.

Terms such as smoke alarm and smoke detector are used interchangeably – yet mean dramatically different things (as noted above).  The same is true to the terms Alarm Monitoring Station and Central Station.  Each of these terms describe a specific level of contracted service – yet they are used interchangeably – potentially to the detriment of the installing company.

Common mistakes
Installers regularly deploy residential alarm systems without considering several of the basic code requirements listed below.

Required Detection – Where required by applicable laws, codes or standards for a specific occupancy, approved single- and multiple-station smoke alarms shall be installed as follows:
• In all sleeping and guest rooms
• Outside of each separate dwelling sleeping area
• On every level of a dwelling unit, including the basement
• In the living area of a guest suite.
• In additional areas as may be required by applicable laws, codes or standards for a specific occupancy type.

NFPA 72(07)-11.5.1, & 11.5.1.1
Far too frequently systems are installed/designed to meet the financial limitations / restrictions of the home builder or homeowner, without adequate understanding on their part of the code requirements listed above.

Installers need to educate the various system stakeholders as to not only the applicable code requirements but the life safety implications of NOT installing a code compliant system.

Inadequate Notification – In jurisdictions where the local AHJ allows the use of a Household Fire Alarm System in place of the code required smoke alarms dealers frequently neglect the requirements for notification appliances. NFPA 72(07)-11.5.2.1.2 specifically requires that Household Fire Alarm Systems meet the notification appliance requirements of NFPA 72(07)-7.4.2 (Public Mode Audible Requirements) and 7.4.4 (Sleeping Area Requirements).

In a typical single family environment this would mean that in the living areas of the residence the notification appliance shall have a sound level at least 15dB above the average ambient sound level, or 5dB above the maximum sound level (having a duration of at least 60 seconds), whichever is greater.

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