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Fire Safety Features in Homes

Written by homesafety  |  15. July 2000

Fire Safety Features of New Homes This page describes the fire safety features that are found in new homes, and includes tips on how they work and how to care for them. The items mentioned will be found in 1-family dwellings, apartments and condominiums. A lot of people think that fires are a problem in older homes, and thus aren't an issue for new homes. This is not the case. For one thing, the leading causes of fires are related to human behavior. Cooking accounts for most dwelling fires, followed by children playing with matches and lighters, and then by people smoking. None of these are related to the structure itself. Electrical fires, which are structurally related, rank fifth in fire causes and account for ten percent or less of all home fires. The fact is that the home is the most dangerous place for fires. Four out of five people who die in fires die in their homes. Some fire officials think that fire safety is a bigger issue for new homes because they are well-insulated and keep the heat from a fire from leaking out. This contributes to faster, hotter fires that cut escape time. That is why you need to be aware of the fire safety features that can be added to reduce your risk. As you will read in the following sections, having the recommended number of smoke alarms can improve your chances of surviving a home fire by nearly 50 percent. Adding fire sprinklers and smoke alarms can improve your chances to over 97 percent. Some fire safety equipment is obvious, like smoke alarms. Other equipment may not be. An example is fire sprinklers, which are relatively small and may not be noticed. In fact, they may be completely recessed into the ceiling. And many people may not recognize the fire safety function of some things such as an electrical grounding rod or windows designed to be large enough for escape. Carbon monoxide alarms are a relatively new home safety feature that are not fire safety items, but we include them here because some models are combined with smoke alarms. Smoke alarms. Over 92 percent of dwellings have at least one smoke alarm, making them the most recognizable fire safety feature in residences. Unfortunately, they are the most under-regarded safety feature. About one third of them no longer work because people forget to test them, replace dead batteries or replace old smoke alarms. In new homes, smoke alarms should be powered by the home's electrical system and have backup batteries. They should also be interconnected so that if one unit detects smoke, all of the units will sound. New owners and tenants need to confirm this feature so they know what to expect if a fire occurs. New dwellings should have the the following number of smoke alarms. First, there should be one alarm located outside each bedroom area, close enough to be heard through closed bedroom doors. There should also be one in each bedroom. In addition, there should be at least one on every level. Thus, a 3-bedroom home with a basement should have a minimum of five smoke alarms. In homes where the bedrooms are not located together, additional smoke alarms will be needed outside the other bedrooms. It is advisable to have more than one on each level if there are several rooms. Remember, smoke alarms cannot work until the smoke reaches them, so every additional smoke alarms cuts the potential response time in a fire. Maintaining smoke alarms. Keeping smoke alarms operating is easy. The big problem is dust that can accumulate inside the unit. Remember, air is flowing through them, and air carries dust particles. Once a year, hold a vacuum cleaner up against them to suck out any dust that may have accumulated inside the unit. If the units are battery operated, replace the batteries every year unless you have installed long-life batteries. And never install a 10-year battery in an older smoke alarm. It may leave you with an inoperable smoke alarm. Replacing smoke alarms. Like any appliance, smoke alarms wear out after time. Ten years is the recommended replacement time. After operating 24 hours a day for ten years, even well-maintained smoke alarms have a 30 percent chance that they will fail to operate in a fire. Carbon monoxide alarms. Every home should have one or more CO alarms. This applies to homes with electric appliances as well if you have an attached garage, a fire place, or if you use portable kerosene heaters, etc. In the case of attached garages, the home may be under negative pressure from time to time (more air flowing out through vents than is coming in). When this is the case, air from the garage can be sucked into the home to make up the difference. When you start your car, just delaying for a few seconds before you pull out of the garage can leave enough CO in the garage to cause a problem. CO alarms are necessary because there is no other way to detect its presence until it is too late. The gas has no odor, no color and no smell. Firefighters need special detection equipment to find the source. Back when CO alarms first hit the market, many fire departments were not trained or equipped to find CO. The firefighters would often respond to a CO alarm and tell the owner that there was no problem so it must be a faulty CO detector. After all, they couldn't see, taste or smell anything and everyone in the home appeared to be okay. They were wrong but did not know it because they did not have the equipment to find it. The people appeared to be okay because the CO alarms are designed to sound before symptoms of CO poisoning appear. This was required so that people would have time to react while they were still clear-headed. Thankfully, most fire departments have now gotten the necessary training and equipment, and are less likely to miss the problem. National standards recommend that a CO alarm be placed near the bedrooms close enough to hear it when the bedroom doors are closed. If the bedrooms are not together, additional CO alarms will be needed. In larger homes, just one CO alarm may not be close enough to other parts of the home to be heard. For example, if the CO alarm is upstairs and you have a family room on the lower level, you might need an additional unit to be close enough to hear it. If the room in in the basement, there will be two levels separating you from the CO alarm, so it is less likely that you will hear it. In this case, a CO alarm on each level is prudent. You can buy battery-operated CO alarms or ones that need 110 volt power. Both types meet the same Underwriters laboratory requirements. In the past, the battery-operated units were more sensitive than the 110 volt type and some people preferred to be warned when even low levels of Co were present. The standards have changed, and CO alarms manufactured today only respond to higher levels of CO that are an imminent threat. There is a new CO alarm on the market that goes into the furnace where the air is returned to be reheated. The logic of this device is that all of the air being circulated throughout the home will be recirculated through the furnace's cold-air return ducts, so one CO alarm in the duct will detect CO that is anywhere in the home. This logic holds as long as the furnace motor is running, so anyone installing this type of alarm needs to keep the motor running constantly, even in the months when the furnace is not being used. Another issue is the ability to hear the alarm. If you install one, make sure that it is loud enough to be heard in every room over the typical noise levels. It also needs to be loud enough to waken you when you are sleeping. Fire sprinklers. Fire sprinklers provide a superior level of protection. Unfortunately, many people do not know that they are available for homes. Many are misinformed about their cost, effectiveness and reliability. A note about the installation costs. Sprinklers add about one percent or less to the cost of a new home. The cost is similar to an upgrade in carpet quality, except that the sprinklers will last for the life of the home while the carpet needs to be replaced every ten years. When you consider the total life cycle cost, then, sprinklers cost far less than a carpet upgrade. How effective are sprinklers? If you have the recommended number of smoke alarms, you increase your chances of surviving a fire by 47 percent. Sprinklers increase that to over 97 percent. The reason for this is that a sprinkler will act before a fire can grow large enough to spread smoke and toxic products - the things that kill people in dwelling fires. In nearly every case, only one sprinkler is enough to handle a fire. Do you think that all of the sprinklers in a room or home go off at the same time? If so, you have been victimized by Hollywood sitcom writers. See howsprinks.htm and sprinklerfacts to find out how they really work. An experienced contractor should install the system. Likewise, it should be designed by a professional with experience in residential sprinklers. Water supply varies widely, and experienced designers will select the sprinklers based on the available flow and pressure in each room. Maintaining your sprinkler system. Fire sprinklers need little care and will last the life of the home. Just remember three things. First, do not paint them. The added coat of paint will absorb heat and can delay the operation of the sprinkler. The paint can also prevent the cap from falling away, which will prevent water from flowing. Second, do not hang anything on them like decorations, plant holders or anything else. Sprinklers are sturdy, but hanging something on them could dislodge the device that holds the water back. Third, remind everyone that the sprinklers are there so that the kids don't hit them with toys, balls, etc.. (We know of one that got whacked with a piata stick at a birthday party). Portable extinguishers. Building codes don't require portable extinguishers in 1-family homes, but you will find them in the corridors and other public areas in apartment buildings. You can purchase them at hardware and builders supply stores, and should have at least on each level of the home. Interestingly, some fire departments will advise against having portable extinguishers. The reasoning is that some people have delayed calling the fire department and the fire was too big for the extinguishers to stop it. There are two flaws in this logic. For one, when people discover a small fire, their immediate response is to try to put it out. If an extinguisher is not handy they will use whatever is, and improper materials (e. g., combustible fabric like a blanket) may actually worsen the situation. It is better to have extinguishers handy if people are going to try to fight a small fire. They should take the following steps: get everyone out, call the fire department, then extinguish the fire if it is small enough for the portable extinguisher to handle. The other flaw in the argument is that people can be taught to recognize which fires can be fought and which cannot. A burning pot on the range can be handled with a portable extinguisher if it has not extended to surrounding material. A mattress is a different situation, and in this case the occupant should not attempt extinguishment. Since early extinguishment results in less damage to the home and less danger to the occupants (not to mention responding firefighters), is it not better for fire departments to train people in the proper use of portable extinguishers? This being said, we also should point out that we are referring to adults and older children. Younger children (under 14 years) should be taught to leave the dwelling and call the fire department. When deciding on where to place portable extinguishers, always select a spot that will let you escape. In other words, you don't want the fire between you and an exit, so place the extinguisher where you will have a path out of the home. Escape windows. Building codes should require that all bedrooms rooms have one window large enough for an average-sized person to get through (and equally important, for firefighters to get in). The net clear opening (the size when the window is completely opened) should have a minimum of 5.7 square feet. The height should be 24 inches and the minimum width 20 inches. The finished sill height should be no higher than 44 inches above the floor. If the home has a basement, there should be a minimum of one escape window on that level. If the window sill is below grade, then it will require a window well. The window well needs to be large enough to allow the window to be fully opened and leave room to exit. This calls for a minimum net clear opening of 9 square feet with a minimum dimension of 36 inches. This requirement is common enough that window suppliers will be able to recommend the correct window.

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