Evolving UL standards enhance emerging smoke detectors

From ruling out cooking, to extended life and tamper-proof batteries, smoke alarms are on the verge of a technology breakthrough


By Robert Rielage

Recently, the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) and the Underwriters’ Laboratory (UL) presented a webinar to discuss “Enhanced Smoke Alarms.” I was interested in this topic for several reasons. First, about a decade ago, the fire service was embroiled in a debate over the effectiveness of ionization versus photo-electric smoke alarms. This debate took many forms, including the citation of alleged scientific evidence, but it also greatly confused the general public as to the reliability of their existing smoke alarms.

Secondly, I am always interested in new technologies, but especially those that can equip the fire service and the public to achieve better life safety outcomes during a residential fire.

The previous debate included those who wanted to change various fire, building codes and other standards to require a prescriptive code that exclusively favored photo-electric detectors over any other. That solution was short-sighted because it excluded any possibility of new technology that at the time was being explored.

New research shows that a resident now has approximately three minutes from the time a smoke alarm sounds to safely exit their home. (Photo/Wikimedia Commons)
New research shows that a resident now has approximately three minutes from the time a smoke alarm sounds to safely exit their home. (Photo/Wikimedia Commons)

This debate also reached into the legislatures of several states and municipalities. My involvement began when then-Ohio Fire Marshal Larry Flowers asked me to chair an ad hoc committee to investigate both types of smoke alarms.

Which smoke alarm is best?

With the help of the committee, which included scientists, engineers, physicians, industry representatives, members of the fire service and legislators, we spent 13 months gathering information and issued a report that essentially found there was no overwhelming evidence to promote one type over the other from the extensive tests run on both types of detectors. We also cited the continuing research being conducted for the next generation of smoke alarms.

The IAFC and UL webinar discussed emerging technologies that not only put the previous debate to bed, but also showed that technology can help solve several other smoke alarm issues we face in the fire service today.

Emerging technology will change how smoke alarms alert residents

UL’s presenters, Brian Johnson and Dan Kaiser, discussed four areas that, in recent years, have emerged to increase the effectiveness of smoke alarms and hence a significant change beginning next year in the UL 217 and UL 268 certifications for smoke alarms.

The presenters indicated that new research shows that a resident now has approximately three minutes from the time a smoke alarm sounds to safely exit their home. This is due to several changes in residential construction, including the use of large open spaces instead of the older, more compartmentalized room plan. They also cited that modern furniture uses more foam and therefore burns hotter and quicker, reaching flashover temperatures more quickly.

Over the past four years, smoke alarm research at the Oak Ridge Laboratory has developed a new set of algorithms that address the issues of nuisance alarms and the subsequent disabling of a smoke alarm by a resident. One algorithm has the ability to discriminate between ordinary cooking in the kitchen and an actual fire in the incipient stage that is developing beyond that of ordinary cooking.

Another set of algorithms was designed by the Oak Ridge research to simultaneously sense and sound the alarm across the smoke spectrum of both a slow, smoldering fire and one that has started with an open flame.

Finally, with the current advent of extended life and tamper proof batteries, this research saw a need and developed an “end of life” signal after the expiration of the detector at 10 years. This signal will be distinctive and remind the resident that it is time to replace the long-lasting smoke alarm.

Know which kind of smoke alarm you’re working with

When these new technology smoke alarms become available sometime in 2019, they will bear a label showing they meet the new UL standards. Battery-operated smoke alarms will have the UL 217 eighth edition label and show they have an “end-of-life” signal, while smoke alarms used within a system, such as those that report to a monitoring site, will bear the UL 268 seventh edition label.

Both the IAFC and UL were quick to add that current smoke alarms, whether using ordinary or extended life batteries, still meet the standards for activation as long as they are less than 10 years old, installed and maintained properly to manufacturers specifications, and tested frequently.

Smoke alarms are one part of the overall safety system that includes “Close before you doze,” – closing bedroom doors when sleeping – planning and practicing exits drills from each room, calling 911 quickly to report the fire, and designating an outside meeting place for accountability of all residents.

Smoke alarms will continue to evolve in the future as new technologies develop, but this new agreed-upon standard by all smoke alarm manufacturers is a giant step toward safer homes and hopefully fewer fire fatalities.

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