Fire alarm standards can be confusing for social housing providers. Gerald Jones explains how to comply – plus Alex Smith lays down the cable law
There appears to be growing confusion among social housing providers about which standards to apply to smoke alarms in existing dwellings. This is made worse by three factors: recent specifications for housing upgrade projects, products that do not meet standards fully and confusing claims from some suppliers.

There is no doubt that smoke alarms save lives – but only if they continue to work effectively for a long time. Social housing providers have a duty of care when specifying, but what should they look for?

Compliance with Building Regulations is a legal requirement for new build and change of use only, although many local authorities and housing associations use the regulations as a benchmark for refurbishment. Part B requires at least one smoke alarm on each floor and, in some cases, a heat alarm in the kitchen, which must all be inter-linked. They must be mains powered and, where battery backup is available, this can be from a regularly used lighting circuit (but not from a light fitting). Smoke alarms on ceilings should be at least 300 mm from walls or lights and not fixed to a surface that is much warmer or cooler than the space, as air currents may move smoke away. Guidance on where to use both optical and ion types of smoke alarm is included.

British Standards
BS 5839 Part 6:1995 is the code of practice for design and installation and offers similar guidance to Part B. In terms of product compliance, BS 5446 Part 1:2000 applies. Here, specifiers are responsible for satisfying themselves that products comply fully, in all respects – not just "made in accordance with". They should ask for detailed evidence of full compliance. Third-party certification, as referred to in the Building Regulations, is the most secure means of achieving this, through organisations such as BSi.

This is the BSi system of certifying full product compliance with appropriate standards, resulting from exhaustive third-party testing, inspection and auditing. The Kitemark is recognised by 80% of the population as a symbol of quality and safety.

CE Marking
CE Marking is linked to the European Construction Products Directive, and a source of some confusion. At present, CE marking for smoke alarms relates only to compliance with certain aspects of electrical safety. It can be self-certified, it is not a quality mark and certainly does not signify full compliance with all aspects of BS 5446. But with the implementation of a harmonised European standard, the performance characteristics of products involved with life safety, such as smoke and heat alarms, will require full product conformity attestation. This must include third-party certification by notified bodies such as BSi. It is expected that most of the 600 or so harmonised standards will be in place within three years.

Duct down: The new cabling regs

The government has issued a new Building Regulations consultation document, Part Q, which could require that all buildings have cable ducting installed during construction. The aim of the document is to ensure that buildings including dwellings can be easily fitted with communication services such as broadband internet in the future. The document is particularly relevant to the housing association and local authority sectors as the government believes that the provision of broadband communication will help to prevent social exclusion within communities. It is considering whether to leave the take-up to market forces or give it a boost by incorporating some or all of the following requirements within Part Q.
  • The cables should be able to be installed retrospectively from the boundary of the site, where the service providers’ service cable would be located, to the building, without the need for groundworks.
  • The communications/internet systems arriving via ducts, satellite dish or antennae, should be able to be fed into the building without causing excessive disturbance of the existing fabric of the building.
  • The services should be able to be distributed to each floor of the building/dwelling and into a habitable room on each floor without excessive disturbance of the fabric and decoration of the building. The guidance in the approved document offers information on meeting these requirements and there is detailed advice on specifying duct, terminal chambers, external and internal terminal boxes, risers, and access points (see diagram). The consultation period ends on 13 June, after which the government will decide whether to incorporate the document within Building Regulations or publish it as guidance notes.
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