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Designing for fire protection

Smoke alarms, sprinkler systems and fire resistant materials are some of the options for protecting your home and family in the event of a fire.

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The importance of smoke alarms

They save lives - there's no doubt about it. And now, all new houses and consented alterations are required to have a ‘means of detection and warning’ in the event of a fire.

Whenever work is carried out on a dwelling that requires a building consent, to meet the requirements of the Building Act the whole dwelling, not just the altered area, must be fitted out with a means of detection and warning of fire.

Smoke alarms are the most common way to achieve this, and this article offers tips on best practice. Other means of warning can be used, and as the design of houses can differ substantially you should consider getting advice from your architect or builder on what means of warning would be best for your home.

Consumer also has test results available for a range of smoke alarms.

Smoke alarm checklist

Check that the smoke alarm has a ‘hush’ facility (usually a button or switch) that allows the alarm to be temporarily silenced upon false activation without the need to remove the battery. The alarm should also have a test facility that is easily accessible. Also check that the smoke alarm complies with at least one of the following standards:

  • UL 217
  • CAN/ULC S531
  • AS 3786
  • BS 5446:Part 1

Where should I install smoke alarms?

Install smoke alarms on the escape routes on all levels within the house, and in areas where people sleep, either:

  • In every sleeping area; or
  • Within three metres of every bedroom door. The alarms must be audible to sleeping occupants on the other side of the closed door.

Smoke alarms are installed on or near the ceiling, in accordance with the manufacturer's instructions.

Installing a smoke alarm in a kitchen or bathroom should be avoided because of the increased likelihood of unwanted alarms caused by cooking, or steam from baths and showers.

Types of smoke alarm

There are two main types of smoke alarm:

  • Battery operated stand-alone smoke alarms. These are not connected to each other and the batteries have to be checked regularly and replaced when needed.
  • Smoke alarms connected to the home’s power supply. These alarms often have a battery back-up and can also be inter-connected so that when one operates, they all sound. This is considered by experts to be the ideal system.

The New Zealand Standard NZS 4514:2002 ‘Interconnected smoke alarms for single household units’ sets out requirements for the installation and commissioning of externally powered interconnected smoke alarms.

How do I ensure smoke alarms are kept in good working order?

Follow the manufacturer's maintenance advice. Also, on a monthly basis you should:

  • Confirm that the alarm still works by pressing the test facility located on the outside of the device. Replace dead batteries immediately.
  • Gently vacuum the dust that gathers on the device. Do not take the alarm apart or off its mount to do this.

Battery mounts
Some models can be installed with the battery the wrong way round, or without a battery in place at all, but these problems should be discovered once you use the test button to check they are working properly.

There have also been reports of batteries slowly slipping out of the battery mount. Look for models with push-on connectors or firm battery mounts.

Hard of hearing?

If you have a hearing impairment, an ultra-loud alarm and/or one with a flashing light may help. Contact the Deaf Aotearoa or the Hearing Association for more information.

Sprinkler systems

Domestic sprinkler systems are available which will activate automatically and spray water on a fire. They are installed by plumbers and connect to your ordinary domestic water supply.

If installed when you are building a new home, a system could cost as little as $1000. In existing houses, it’s relatively easy to install the pipe-work in the void above the living areas and connect it to the existing water system.

They are heat activated so only the sprinkler head affected by the fire activates. They won’t flood the whole house and won’t be activated by smoke (for example, from the toaster). Ninety percent of fires are controlled by just one sprinkler.

The advantage of sprinklers is that they will contain and control a fire in its early stages, which means less fire and water damage to your home. They will not provide early warning so you still need smoke alarms.

See the BRANZ website for information about sprinkler systems.

The New Zealand Standard NZS 4517:2002 specifies minimum requirements for the design, material and installation of fire sprinkler systems for households.

Using fire resistant materials

There are wall lining and insulation materials that have fire resistant properties. Consider specially manufactured fire resistant wall linings in those areas of the house which you particularly want to protect, for example, the office where you store valuables, paperwork, photographs and other irreplaceable items.

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