Fire & Life Safety: Residential Fire Alarm Changes

June 10, 2014
Inside new NFPA 72 rules on fire buttons, annual inspection requirements, and dealing with the hearing impaired

A reader recently wrote me to ask if the manual “fire” button on some household listed keypads were OK to use, since they operated, in a way, like a manual pull box — but were not listed as such. This question tied into a few interesting new requirements as part of the 2013 edition of NFPA 72.

First, here was my advice to the reader: “These buttons are part of the listed equipment approved for household fire alarm systems. Since manual pull boxes are not required in a one- or two-family home, these buttons are provided as a supplementary method for the homeowner to activate an alarm without having their home look like a commercial building. They exceed the code requirements for a home, and exceeding the code is always allowed, if not encouraged.”

Additionally, these keypads are also permitted in a commercial setting, but cannot be used to satisfy a code requiring a listed manual pull box. The 2013 edition of NFPA 72 does now require with new rule that either two keypad buttons be pressed at the same time, or a single button be pressed two times, or two buttons be pressed once each in succession. This provision was added to lessen the chance of an “unwanted alarm.” This change was totally necessary due to anecdotal scientific research, recently postulated, that a fractional percentage of all homeowners are, perhaps, “all thumbs.” This non-intuitive double-sequence-manual-operation rule should help prevent any further emergency use of this once handy feature. We’ll keep our fingers crossed.

Speaking of household fire alarm systems, did you know that also in the 2013 edition of NFPA 72 is a requirement for homeowners to have their systems tested annually by a qualified service technician? This rule,, also includes a provision for the installing company to notify the homeowner in writing of this requirement at the time of the installation; as well as reminders annually if the system is monitored. Since homeowners will not read about this requirement on their own, it is up to you, when your jurisdiction adopts this edition, to notify new monitored residential fire alarm customers of this obligation. And by the way, the yearly testing by a qualified person part was also in the 2010 edition of NFPA 72.

Finally, if a homeowner for whom you are installing a fire alarm system informs you that someone in their household has mild to severe hearing loss, then the notification appliances you install in that home will be different than those you install in other homes. The appliances in the hearing impaired person’s home, effective with the 2013 edition of NFPA 72, will produce a low frequency signal, in the 520 Hz range. This requirement follows the new rule for commercial occupancies, where the appliances are being installed to awaken sleeping persons.

I recently took part in a System Sensor webinar and discovered their products that produce this low square wave frequency are now available, and that Gentex’s similar products are in development and will be rolled out soon. Extra attention will have to be paid to the notification circuits these appliances will be attached to, as they tend to require around five times the typical amperage of traditional piezo sounders. Just like strobe lights, as the technology advances, the current draw will probably come down, as this new product advances.


Editor’s note: In the April edition of Greg Kessinger’s Fire & Life Safety column (Pop Quiz: NEC Wiring Methods), the wording of question #5 was changed in the editing process — this change in wording inadvertently changed the meaning of the question and the subsequent answer. While this mistake has been corrected on the online version of the article (, the editors of SD&I wanted to make sure our print-only readers were also made aware of the correction.

Thus, question #5 should have read:

“Why is it that I seem to run across equipment and devices that don’t seem to meet the NEC requirements as they relate to fire alarm systems? Do the dry-wall boxes that have no backs, mud rings, and similar plaster rings I see being used by other low voltage contractors meet the NEC?”

Greg Kessinger is SD&I’s fire alarm and codes expert and a regular contributor. Please email him your fire & life safety questions at [email protected].