E-mail me: mlummis@RealEstateHalifax.ca |
January 2000, a Canadian public affairs television program, W-Five, reported
that the most common smoke detectors on the market do not detect smouldering
fires and companies that sell them failed to inform the public of the
device's limitations. A few weeks later, independent testing was conducted
which disputed the program's claims. The result is consumers who are
concerned about the safety of their families and the accuracy of both
The research used by
W-Five was provided by Texas A&M University, reportedly a leading testing
lab for smoke detectors. Tests showed that both ionization and photoelectric
style smoke detectors failed to sound alarms within the legal time limit. As
well, in three out of four of their tests on ionization alarms, all 11 of
them failed to detect smouldering fire three metres away. This is in
violation of safety standards both in Canada and the United States.
Ionization alarms are triggered when smoke particles interrupt ion
current that flows between two metal plates. Photoelectric alarms use a beam
of light to detect the presence of visible smoke particles.
produce different types of smoke and some are more easily detected by the
ionization alarms. Smouldering fires, such as couch fires, failed to trigger
alarms in the Texas A&M research. Kitchen fires, which produce more smoke
particles, were easier to detect.
In the United States, a leading manufacturer of ionization alarms has
been sued for product failure. In July 1998, First Alert was found liable
and forced to compensate a couple who lost a child in a fire. The judge
ruled that First Alert ignored more than 400 complaints about its detectors
and was ordered to pay US$20-million. In another case, the court awarded
US$50-million after a First Alert alarm failed to warn them of a fire that
killed two children.
The shadow of doubt
that has been cast over smoke alarms has raised concern among fire fighters.
The head of the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs has expressed his hope
that people will continue to use and maintain their smoke alarms. This
controversy also prompted the Underwriter's Laboratories of Canada (ULC) to
conduct its own studies on alarm effectiveness published in February 2000.
Their report states that both types of alarms detect all types of smoke and
give people enough warning to evacuate their homes in the event of fire.
When the ULC questioned the integrity of Texas A&M's research, the head
researcher's response was they had wanted to test the detectors in
"real-world fire situations" instead of following the ULC's standard
should not hinge on test methods but unfortunately the controversy
continues. The silver lining may be that eventually smoke alarms will be
improved and new products will be introduced.
In the meantime,
consumers are advised to use both ionization and photoelectric detectors. If
you currently have a photoelectric type, invest in an ionization detector
and visa versa. Since research seems to indicate a limited detection range
try to have one in each room. Combination alarms (which perform both
functions) are available starting at about $40. Smoke detectors should also
be interconnected so that when one alarm sounds there is a chain reaction.
Those few extra seconds can make the difference between safety and tragedy.
- By Lisa Harrison
What You Need to Know About Smoke Detectors
Everyone dreads the idea of a fire destroying his or her home. It's
hard to imagine the treasured possessions accumulated over a
lifetime turned to ashes and charred remains. Even more difficult is
coping with the irreplaceable loss of loved ones. Fortunately, much
of this could be prevented. The number of reported fires in houses
with smoke alarms is 10 times less than in those without alarms.
Most people realize that detectors are their best protection in
a fire yet approximately 13% of Canadian households don't use them.
A lack of information and reluctance to make the investment seem to
be the main reasons. These homeowners put themselves in danger when
they are most vulnerable. Statistically, the worst fires occur in
the evening when people are sleeping. By the time they smell smoke
or feel heat, the fire is rampant and the occupants of the home can
become trapped or overcome by the carbon monoxide present in smoke.
Alarms are designed to sound at the first sign of smoke increasing
the odds that both the residents and their possessions will survive.
It's important to be aware that there are different types of
fires and different types of detectors. Ionization alarms are
triggered when smoke particles interrupt the ion current that flows
between two metal plates. The advantage of these detectors is that
the smoke can be invisible to the human eye, while remaining
"visible" to the ionization detector. The ion conductivity is
produced by a tiny amount of radioactive material-Americium-241 (or
AM-241). Some research has been done which indicates ionization
detectors may not be very good at detecting smouldering fires which
produce small amounts of particles. These detectors work best in
smoky fires such as kitchen fires.
Photoelectric devices work on an entirely different
principle-smoke particles cross a steady beam of light and set off
the alarm much like a motion sensor. There are conflicting reports
on the efficiency of this detector and it is recommended that
homeowners invest in a dual photoelectric/ionization device which
combines both functions. At the very least, if you already have an
ionization device you should invest in a photoelectric version and
greater protection install at least three alarms-one in the living
room (41 percent of fatal fires start in the living room), one near
the bedroom and one place few people think of-in the basement. Hot
water heaters and furnaces in the basement can pose a significant
fire hazard especially since a small fire there is likely to go
unnoticed until the fire is too large to control.
You should also consider wiring your detectors for a
chain-reaction. Normally, an isolated fire would have to burn
intensely before setting off alarms at the opposite end of the home.
Chain-reaction alarms sound simultaneously at the first sign of
smoke giving your family valuable minutes to get to safety. When you
purchase alarms, ask about connective wiring options.
Remember that tradition noise-producing alarms are ineffective
for occupants who are deaf or hard of hearing. There have been great
new innovations in the warning signal itself. A new product, The
Scent of Life Signalling Device releases a pungent aerosol spray
into the air when smoke is detected. This device also works well in
high noise level areas. For more information on this product check
out http://www.globweb.com/paradigm/solmain.htm Strobe light alarms
are also effective for the hearing impaired but must be placed well
within view. If you opt for a strobe alarm for residential use be
sure to place one in the bedroom.
The annual fire-death rate in houses without alarms is 130
deaths per million households. By installing several
battery-operated detectors in each house, that rate would be reduced
by almost two-thirds. Battery operated models range from $20-50. The
safety rates are even better with wired-in smoke detectors which
have been mandatory in new housing since 1980. These devices are
more heat-resistant and reliable than battery operated alarms.
Wired-in systems cost approximately $500.
Whichever system you choose be sure to follow installation and
maintenance instructions. Battery operated models will either use
staggered beeps or a blinking light to indicate low power. Don't
wait that long though-install new batteries when you change your
clocks for daylight savings time in the spring and fall. You and
your family will sleep easy knowing you're protected. Hopefully the
only alarm you'll hear when you're sleeping will have a snooze
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