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Open for business

18 April 2017

Stephen Beadle explains how maintaining your fire system properly benefits business continuity and can make all the difference in preventing a total-loss fire.

WHEN IT comes to fire-alarm systems, reliability is not a given. It is affected by key variables, including: system design, products used, installation and ongoing maintenance. After the design and installation are completed, the only variable that can be easily controlled is the level of maintenance provided for the system.

Proper maintenance, in accordance with detector manufacturers’ recommendations and industry codes and standards, will ensure not only system problems are identified ‒ and subsequently remedied ‒ but also environment changes, so that appropriate updates to the system can be applied. Most importantly, it also ensures that each detector installed is fit for purpose, capable of detecting fire and ready to protect the building and its occupants.

Current standards, such as BS 5839, DIN 14675 and NFPA 72, call for frequent functional testing of fire detectors. This helps ensure any problems with the system are identified and the detectors are all up to the task of protecting from the danger of fire. But what happens if a regular maintenance programme is not followed? Can the system be relied upon to function correctly? What risks might this present to the business? There are no definitive answers to these questions but the bottom line is: a lack of maintenance can present both short and long-term risks to business continuity.  

In the short term, there is a greater risk of false alarms with a fire system that is not properly maintained. Poorly maintained systems can become contaminated with dirt or debris, which can cause the detectors to enter alarm when there is no fire. Or the environment changes and, as a result, a new, or different business activity causes a detector to activate. If the detector does enter alarm, it may lead to a building evacuation – an unnecessary disruption that will cost the business time and money. In situations where false alarms are frequent, they often end up being ignored, or, visual confirmation is used to determine the cause of the alarm – both obviously worrying and dangerous scenarios. Proper maintenance will identify such problems and provide the opportunity to remedy them.

Maintaining systems

A longer-term risk of poor (or lack) of maintenance is, of course, a real fire, as there can be no guarantees that a poorly or unmaintained system will activate in such an event. By ensuring that your fire system is up to date and functioning properly you can avoid becoming one of the estimated 70% of businesses that do not re-open after suffering a major fire.

Proper maintenance of detectors involves testing each one with a stimulus appropriate to the type of detector. Smoke detectors need to be tested using particles that replicate real smoke, heat detectors need to be tested with a safe heat source and CO fire detectors require a genuine CO stimulus. The tools used to carry out these tests need to be fit for purpose and approved for use by the detector manufacturers. This ensures compatibility between the detector and tester, preventing damage or contamination, which could lead to false alarms, or affect the detectors’ ability to alarm in the event of a genuine fire. 

Industry-standard tools from the Solo and Testifire ranges are now widely used around the world. In the case of Solo, the brand has been established for more than 20 years and is relied upon by thousands of engineers every day to carry out functional testing of all types of fire detectors. A more recent introduction, Testifire is the all-in-one test solution for smoke and heat. It’s ideal for testing multi-sensors but is equally suitable for single-sensor detectors. Both test solutions comply with the relevant codes and standards and are approved by detector manufacturers, thus providing peace of mind and ensuring minimal disruption while testing is carried out.

Specialist testing

The Solo and Testifire product ranges provide simple access to detectors at heights of up to nine metres. Test-head units connect easily to specialist telescopic poles, providing access to detectors without the need for specialist access equipment, out-of-hours testing, or major site disruption. 

While the majority of detectors are easily accessible for routine testing and maintenance, some take longer to test, or require significant planning to access – costing money and causing disruption. The reach of a pole-based tester is limited to about nine metres and, in these cases, the test engineer must access the detector from underneath. However, not all fire detectors can be accessed from directly below, or they may be located above nine metres ‒ for example, in atria, warehouses or sports complexes.

In other cases, detectors may be inaccessible because they are in locked, or restricted areas ‒ for example, secure offices and occupied rooms, IT server rooms, store rooms and archives. Or they could be in ceiling voids, meaning a cordon needs to be set around suitable access equipment before removing the ceiling tile to perform a test. Smoke detectors at the top of lift shafts are among the hardest to access and thus the least tested. As well as risk assessments, arranging alternative access, costs of lift engineers to secure the lifts, and the organisation all this incurs, the inherent risk in carrying out the test from the top of the lift car is a major concern. 

In all of these cases, a great deal of time and effort is put into accessing the detector, but the test itself is completed in under a minute. One simple solution that eliminates the disruption caused when testing a hard-to-access detector is to install a Scorpion smoke generator alongside the detector. This allows a functional test to be carried out from a safe and easily accessible location and does not require the use of third-party engineers and access equipment. By delivering the right formula of smoke in a suitably low quantity, the detector can be activated and the smoke quickly dispersed, allowing the fire system to be returned to operation in the shortest time.

Keep up with the changes

Looking to the future, while most detectors already installed are single-sensor smoke or heat detectors, the growth in multi-sensor technology is significant. Like all forms of detectors these require functional testing and it’s important that all sensors are proved to be fully functioning, i.e. ready to alert in the case of a real fire. If they’re not, this raises the risk of false alarms and the opportunity for fire to go undetected.  

Changes in the design of smoke detection have also evolved in recent years and, as a result, some detectors may no longer activate when tested with a traditional test tool (such as a smoke aerosol).  In these cases, it is vital to ensure the detector is still functionally tested and, importantly, this still needs to be done using a method that is approved and fit for purpose. Advances in test solutions, such as Testifire and the soon-to-be-launched Solo 365, provide an answer to such challenges – generating detector-friendly and compatible smoke in a different way to conventional aerosols, while retaining the approvals and endorsements from global detector manufacturers.

Stephen Beadle is marcoms manager at Detector testers