Challenges of Testing in Complex Buildings
Innovation in the design and technology within fire detectors has made it easier to keep pace with evolving building designs and layouts and ensure, no matter how complex, that sites are protected from the risk of fire. However, once these detectors are installed testing and maintenance needs to be carried out, and this too requires innovation in the form of test solutions in order to meet the challenges of keeping complex sites safe and compliant.
So what are some of the challenges? Regardless of a building’s age, it cannot be assumed that the fire detection system will consist purely of smoke detectors. Instead, buildings will likely now have a number of heat detectors installed and in addition to this; the number of sites with multi-sensor detectors is increasing.
The increased use of heat and multi-sensor devices not only helps ensure better protection for the site and its occupants but also helps with the drive to reduce false alarms. Multi-sensors have the advantage of being able to operate in different modes depending on the activities that take place on the site. For example using a multi-sensor, a site where daytime activities lead to a presence of smoke in the atmosphere could be protected with the detector set to detect heat, the detector could then switch to detect smoke at night when the site is unoccupied. Whilst this technology significantly improves the protection offered to the site and contributes to reducing the problems caused by false alarms – the challenge then remains in how these detectors are tested.
In the example above, if two types of detection are being relied upon to protect the building and its occupants, then reassurance that both forms of detection are functioning correctly, and able to activate in the event of a real fire, is essential. This is supported by the national and international fire safety standards. For example, BS:5839-1 which, at its last update, stated: “Multi-sensor fire detectors should be physically tested by a method that confirms that products of combustion in the vicinity of the detector can reach the sensors and that the appropriate response is confirmed at CIE.” (45.4(j). It highlights that each sensor on which a fire detection decision depends (e.g. smoke, heat, CO) should be physically tested individually. This means that functional testing needs to be carried out on both the smoke and heat sensors, this ultimately requires spending more time under each detector and on a site where multi-sensors are the dominant device, this can add significant time to a site visit. In this situation access to an all-in-one test solution adds real value, not only does it mean less time spent changing between testers but it also means less tools are required to be carried around site – reducing disruption and improving productivity.
Use of single sensor heat detectors is nothing particularly new, although over the years these too have generally become more popular as standards have changed leading to types of detection relevant to the site and space being specified and installed. Functional testing of these types of devices is therefore common and approved solutions) to carry out such testing, (such as the Solo 461), are well established. However, these detectors have developed to a point where some high heat detectors can require an input of up to 100°c in order to activate. Whilst most heat detectors can be easily activated with a cordless heat detector tester, activating devices set 100°c can be a challenge. Of course if such a device is installed, it needs to be tested – it has been installed to offer protection and for this reason it needs to be known that it is functioning correctly and ready to activate in the event of real fire. This is another example where the technology used to test detectors has evolved to meet the demand of testing particular detectors. The latest all-in-one test solution available includes two heat settings – one for activating detectors set to 90°c and a second High Heat setting designed specifically for testing heat detectors set to 100°c. As with testing multi-sensors, availability of such solutions are designed to ensure a test solution exists for the widest range of fire detectors available and enables rapid and reliable functional testing. From a smoke testing point of view, modern all-in-one testers also provide the opportunity to move away from traditional smoke aerosols. Whilst these have served the industry well for decades, they are increasing being subjected to content regulations that pushes up the price and can affect the compatibility with certain detectors. The non-pressurised cartridges used in test devices such as Testifire, avoid these issues and offer a significant saving compared to traditional smoke aerosols. Of course, when testing smoke and heat the other major benefit of an all-in-one tester is that of productivity. Use of Testifire eliminates the need to switch between tools when testing different sensors this, along with the clearing mode which helps eliminate nuisance re-alarms, can lead to 40% faster testing.
It’s not only the type of detection that has changed to support the needs of complex and innovative buildings, there are now far more options to choose from in terms of the design of the detectors available. In recent years, detectors have become available in different colours – meaning sites such as cinemas, theatres and dance studios can choose a colour, which fits with their décor and will not stand out in the same way that a traditional white detector may. On sites where these detectors are used the choice of colour has no impact on how the device operates and therefore testing can be carried out using the same tools as would normally be used. However, the reason for installing these detectors is usually as the space they are protecting is a dark area, often with no natural light, making the detector hard to see and alignment of any tester with the detector a harder task. This has represented another opportunity for test solutions to evolve – and they have – with the introduction of an LED torch to the latest smoke detector tester. This simple feature makes a significant difference when testing on site, automatically illuminating when light levels drop – it means detectors in dark rooms and those in voids and behind ductwork can be easily accessed and tested.
The availability of detectors in different colours is just one of the ways detectors have been made more building friendly, we are now also seeing challenges to the traditional design of detectors – with flush designed detectors now available. These next generation detectors are some way away from becoming commonplace – but they are increasing being specified, particularly in modern buildings where there is a requirement for a sleek, modern look and feel to everything installed. The nature of the design of these devices means they are not always compatible with traditional testers and therefore require an alternative solution for testing. Of course, as a fire detector they still need to be tested – so functional testing still needs to be carried out in compliance with codes and standards. The good news is that solutions exist to make testing of these devices easy and allow maintenance to still be carried out as part of the standard maintenance visit. The solution, provided by Solo 365, generates smoke electronically which is then directed across the window of the detector – rather than into a chamber as it would with a traditional smoke detector. This latest generation of smoke detector tester enables this via a specialist adaptor fitted to the tester to direct smoke across the detector in the manner required to create an activation.
With demand for new buildings high and pressure on land tight, a significant number of new developments are tall buildings, the fact that such buildings stretch over multiple floors can make these complex sites when it comes to installing and maintaining fire detection systems. The majority of these buildings will include a lift – at the top of the shaft there will be a smoke detector, designed to protect the shaft. A fire in lift shaft can spread quickly through a building, so having a working detector installed is essential. This alone highlights the importance of the fire detector in this application – so of course, assurance is needed that it functioning correctly. The nature of the application though makes testing a real challenge, using traditional test solutions requires significant planning and cost – often involving third party personnel in the form of a lift engineer and taking the lift out of service for a prolonged period during the day.
So, with detectors in lift shafts commonplace, how do you carry out testing without incurring ongoing costs and without causing severe disruption to the site? The answer lies in the form a permanently installed smoke tester placed alongside the detector and wired back to a conveniently located access point that is then used to power the tester and activate an on-demand smoke test. The flexibility of this solution means it is not only suitable for lift shafts – but can be used on any site where there is a smoke detector installed in a hard-to-access room or space.
Modern buildings are home to some striking architecture; they look fantastic inside and out but the very nature of these designs mean they will often have fire detectors installed which are hard to access. This will not always be in a lift shaft or secure room, often it can be a location where the design of the building has made it hard to access – examples include high, exposed ceilings in foyers and receptions where detectors are installed beyond the 9-metre reach of traditional test solutions. In situations like this, there is nothing to prevent access other than the height – again a permanently installed tester is an ideal solution and negates the need for specialist access equipment such access platforms. Installations of permanently installed test solutions have proved popular in a wide range of sites including universities, hospitals, transport hubs and retail – where there are often multiple applications such as secure rooms, spaces with 24-hour occupancy and high access that make testing using traditional test methods problematic. The design of this tester also makes it suitable for use with aspirating smoke detection systems, a form of detection which itself is being more widely used across a wide range of sites.
An increase in the number of detectors installed in hard-to-access locations has led to the subject being addressed in industry codes and standards around the world. Using BS:5839-1 as the example once again, the 2017 update to the standard covered this by stating: “For remotely situated or hard-to-access detection equipment, consideration needs to be given to the feasibility of testing and maintenance at the design stage.” (Clause 22.1).
This again underlines the fact that a detector has been installed for a reason and, regardless of its location, needs to be able to be tested.
As buildings continue to become more complex, methods of detection will constantly evolve to offer desirable solutions to building owners whilst maintaining compliance with standards. Thankfully, test solutions to meet these changing needs are already available and they too will continue to develop to ensure on-going testing and maintenance can be easily achieved regardless of detector type or location.
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