Achieving consistency in fire safety standards

Discrepancies between Building Regulations and other guidance for smoke, heat and carbon monoxide alarms in housing must be resolved, argues Rex Taylor of Kidde Safety Europe

Definitive guidance for smoke and heat alarms is provided by the Code of Practice, BS 5839, Part 6: 2013. It covers both new and existing homes, whether for single occupancy households or houses of multiple occupations consisting of self-contained units.

While BS 5839-6 takes the form of guidance and recommendations, it is not in itself mandatory. However, it forms the basis for Building Regulations and housing standards, and is used in legal and insurance disputes.

Minimum standards

While BS 5839-6 is based on a risk assessment approach, it recognises that in most cases guidance tabulated in the Code can be applied as a minimum standard. It lists the minimum Categories (locations for alarms) and Grades (power sources) recommended for different types of housing. Typically, for new houses up to three storeys and individual flats, the Code recommends Category LD2. This means smoke alarms must be installed in all escape routes and any areas where fires might start, such as living rooms, plus heat alarms in all kitchens.

Installation of smoke and heat alarms to satisfy Building Regulations is a legal requirement for all new-build dwellings, changes of use and certain alterations. Different regulations and related guidance apply in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. This guidance is unsuitable for existing properties where Building Regulations do not apply, because more alarms may be needed in older homes to account for a lack of passive fire protection and other factors, as highlighted in BS 5839-6.

Conflicting regulations

Regulations in Scotland and Northern Ireland effectively mirror the recommendations of BS 5839-6. But Approved Document B, covering England and Wales, sets the bar lower – effectively Category LD3, with smoke alarms just in escape routes and heat alarms only in kitchens open to circulation areas. Worryingly, BS 5839-6 stresses that with LD3 the evacuation time once fire is detected in the circulation area might be quite limited, and also “might not prevent death or serious injury of occupants of the room where fire originates” such as living rooms. There is clearly a compelling case to adopt the BS 5839-6 standard in both new and existing properties – even those where Regulations have previously been applied – with more alarms.

All Building Regulation guidelines and also BS 5839-6 are agreed in demanding Grade D hard-wired, interconnected smoke and heat alarms with backup power, which should be professionally installed. Battery-only smoke alarms are not permitted where Building Regulations apply. But Grade D is also important for existing buildings and BS 5839-6 excludes Grade F battery-only systems from all rented homes.

Rental rules

Recent rules also apply to privately rented homes. In England, the ‘Smoke and Carbon Monoxide Alarm (England) Regulations’ call for a smoke alarm on each floor with accommodation, and a CO alarm in any habitable room with a solid fuel appliance. The landlord, managing agent or other representative must check that alarms work at the start of each tenancy and replace any that do not, highlighting the need for long-term reliability. The regulations do not distinguish between battery and mains smoke alarms but, as we have seen, BS 5839-6 recommends Grade D mains with back-up power, interconnected alarms. This is also a legal requirement for Scottish rented properties.

The English Rental regulations also require a CO alarm – but only in habitable rooms with solid fuel heating appliances (as with Building Regulations Part J).

In contrast, private rented properties in Scotland now have to meet a much higher standard, in line with the Building Regulations Technical Handbooks, already applying to all new and replacement combustion appliance installations. They require a CO alarm in every space containing a combustion appliance such as boilers, fires, heaters or stoves – whether using gas, oil, wood or other fuels. A CO alarm is also required where a flue passes through ‘high risk accommodation’, such as a bedroom or a main living room.

Carbon monoxide alarm standard

The latest guidance on CO alarms is provided by BS EN 50292:2013. It recommends that a CO alarm should be installed in every room containing a fuel-burning appliance plus other well-used rooms remote from the appliance, and all bedrooms.

Where the number of CO alarms has to be limited, priority should be given to any room containing a flue-less or open-flue appliance and where the occupants spend most time. In addition, rooms with extended or concealed flues passing through should also have an alarm.

Building Regulations throughout the UK require CO alarms to varying degrees, but only with installation of new or replacement combustion appliances – excluding those used for cooking, unlike the Standard. BS EN 50292’s more rigorous approach contrasts particularly starkly with the Part J Approved Document applying to England and Wales.

This only requires a CO alarm with installation of certain, solid fuel heating appliances. The rising toll of deaths and illness caused by carbon monoxide incidents associated with other fuels and types of combustion appliances, including cookers, highlights the urgent need for a better benchmark than this. It is also important to consider potential CO risks to and from adjacent properties or shared spaces.

Comprehensive systems

According to all the Regulations and BS EN 50292:2013, alarms can be powered by batteries designed for the whole working life of the alarm, or by mains. Hard-wired alarms are easily installed in new-builds, or during refurbishments and rewiring, alongside hard-wired smoke and heat alarms to offer additional safety features. Examples include hard-wired CO alarms that interlink with each other but also with smoke and heat alarms that can all act as sounders to alert of either risk, forming comprehensive systems.

Crucially, the alarms must have different, distinct alarm sounder patterns for carbon monoxide and fire, as required by BS 5839-6 – and some are supported by different display messages on digital models.

Some of these systems can therefore automatically alert occupants of the specific hazard that confronts them. This allows occupants to respond quickly according to different scenarios caused by either fire or the presence of carbon monoxide.

Rex Taylor is technical support manager of Kidde Safety Europe