ARPOLA has been closely monitoring the change in laws about smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors across the country.
What In The World Are Photoelectric Smoke Detectors… And Why Do I Need Them?
One case hit close to home as my son had friends that were effected. On January 1, 2013, in the University of Cincinnati campus area three blocks off campus, two college students died of smoke inhalation due to a smoldering fire. As a landlord, getting a call about a tenant dying in a fire in one of my homes is one of my greatest fears. Reading the article and hearing the account from my son, I was bothered by several things.
The rental was a solid brick house like my own rental homes – not the aging, wood framed, structure that I might first think of when I hear about serious fires. The fire didn’t appear to have been a serious blaze. News reports and the Fire Department report says the call came in at 6:48 a.m. trucks were in the scene in under 3.5 minutes, they had the fire under control in 10 minutes and had confined it to one room.
A fireman commented that when he arrived he was not sure they had the right address because he did not immediately see signs of fire. The firemen carried the two victims from the house 9 minutes and 50 seconds after the call first came in. What killed the residents was smoke. The fire never got near them. There were on the floor, apparently trying to escape when they were overcome from the smoke.
Fatalities occur from smoke not burns
While there are complicating factors to that situation that we discuss in other ARPOLA blogs it drew a significant amount of attention to smoke based fatalities that are so common in house fires.
Contrary to popular belief, most deaths from house fires do not occur from burns, but instead from smoke. The smoke-based fatalities are a problem that could most likely be avoided with the use of a photo-electric type of smoke detector. These detectors, according to several university studies, are significantly more effective in picking up smoldering fires. With today’s pervasive use of fire retardant materials, most fires actually smolder for a significant amount of time before growing into a flaming-fire.
The photo-electric smoke detectors are quicker activating with these smoldering fires and substantially the same in fast burning fires. By utilizing a single sensor photo-electric smoke detector residents may be notified between 2 and 40 minutes earlier, based on university studies.
Due to this technological advantage, in an effort to help reduce smoke related fatalities, many municipalities across the U.S. are changing laws or passing ordinances to require photoelectric smoke detectors in rental properties. Most of these ordinances require a landlord to install one photoelectric smoke detector in a bedroom, or outside of a bedroom between contiguous bedrooms. Personally, I am placing them in each bedroom, the hallways, and at the top of the stairwells depending upon the layout of the home. Many of these new laws put strict time requirements into place.
All smoke alarms expire after 10 years
Because of the logistics and financial impact, as well as the likelihood of incident, these laws are asking single family rentals and smaller buildings to finish the process more quickly, as student and university related fatalities have been more significantly impacted.
ARPOLA has worked with our partner, The Home Depot and their manufacturers to address the substantial need for a dependable solution for our members, independent rental owners. In most areas there will be an annual certification that the detectors are working. The process for this will most likely be the posting of a self-signed and dated certificate in an area by a fire extinguisher or boiler certificate at the property.
Please consider that ALL smoke alarms expire after 10 years. If the smoke alarm does not have a date stamped on it, it most likely predates the 10 year expiration and will be considered “expired” by fire inspectors in any region.
Some other ways to make the detector longer lasting are lithium batteries. These long-life batteries can help minimize the maintenance required for battery change outs and reduce the time it takes to perform annual certification.
Most lithium batteries currently last about 6 years. Also 9-volt Lithium batteries are less likely to be “removed” by tenants. There are fewer uses for this battery outside of smoke alarms. Longer lasting batteries are expected to enter the market later this year – updates will be announced as they become available. Many detectors have a pin near the battery case. This can help deny or delay a tenant access to the battery.
So what are the specific differences in smoke detectors?
Ionization Smoke Detectors: typically these are disabled at least 20% of the time due to nuisance (false) alarms. Ionization-type smoke alarms have a small amount of radioactive material between two electrically charged plates. This ionizes the air and causes current to flow between the plates. When smoke enters the chamber, it disrupts the flow of ions. Thus it reduces the flow of current and activating the alarm. Ionization detectors will often have an atomic symbol on them for their (exceptionally small) radioactive ingredient. Photo-electrics will typically have “P” in a square stamped on the case. 90%+ of all detectors currently being used are ionization.
Photoelectric smoke alarms
Generally more responsive to fires that begin with a long period of smoldering (called “smoldering fires”). Photoelectric-type alarms aim a light source into a sensing chamber at an angle away from the sensor. Smoke enters the chamber, reflecting light onto the light sensor; triggering the alarm.
Please note the use of the term “single sensor” is not without purpose. There are combo-units that include both ionization and photo-electric sensors. However, these combo units consistently react slower than single sensor units in various tests, and are not recommended. To be brief, they are more costly and less effective.
Many of the changes in the law call for photoelectric installation, for each type of smoke alarm. The advantage it provides may be critical to life safety in some fire situations. Fatal fires in a rental home include a large number of smoldering fires and a large number of flaming fires. You can’t predict the type of fire you may have in your rental home or when it will occur. Any smoke alarm technology, to be acceptable, must perform acceptably for both types of fires. It must provide early warning at all times of day or night and whether you are asleep or awake.
For best protection, ARPOLA recommends both (ionization and photoelectric) technologies be used in rental homes. We also encourage having a working and tested carbon monoxide detector and fire extinguisher in your rentals.
Landlord responsibility in California
National Conference of State Legislatures and state by state laws