Smoke alarms come packed with the latest technology nowadays, and Martyn Walley aims to ensure that technology is both easy to understand and use

DO YOU recall when a phone was just a phone? Then came text messaging, taking pictures with your phone, getting directions, accessing the internet, paying for goods, controlling your heating at home... the list goes on. Making a call is one of the last things you actually use your phone for, if you’re of a certain generation.
 
Advanced technology is seeping into all electronic devices, including those in the trade sector. A domestic smoke alarm still performs its fundamental life saving task of detecting smoke, but now comes with a host of added features and functions designed to further enhance the safety of residents, whilst adding flexibility into a system. However, such features are only beneficial if you truly understand their purpose, and how to fit, apply and use them. 
 
For some contractors and specifiers, the array of different smoke alarm features and functionality can seem overwhelming. Gone are the days when you simply had to decide which alarm sensor type – ionisation, optical or heat – to use where. Now, multi sensors have been added to the mix, along with accessories such as alarm controllers and interfaces to third party life safety systems. 
 
You need to decide how to interconnect these alarms and devices, be it hard wired or wire free. And that’s just the beginning.
 
Manufacturers have an important role to play here. Firstly, they must ensure the technology incorporated into modern day smoke alarms is easy to understand, install and, importantly, use. Secondly, they should provide support, training and product information in multiple formats, so that you can pick one that fits your work schedule. 
 
Child’s play?
 
In recent years, there have been some key technological developments in domestic smoke alarms and manufacturers have made them intuitive or, at the very least, easy to use. 
 
Wire free alarm interconnection has arguably had the biggest impact in this sector. BS 5839-6 and Building Regulations require fire alarms to be interconnected. Hard wiring alarms together is effective in a new build, but creates significant disruption and cosmetic damage in existing properties. Instead, this can be achieved using radio frequency (RF) signals. If one alarm on the system is triggered, RF signals are used to cause every other alarm in the property to sound. There’s no need for extra cabling and trunking or for redecoration/repair costs.
 
As you would expect, installing alarms with wireless interconnection is quick and simple. You will still need to wire each device independently to a permanent mains feed from the nearest local lighting circuit, but this is the only hard wiring you will be required to do, and is standard practice with all mains powered alarms. 
 
From here on, different systems work in different ways. It’s important to select a system that takes a straightforward approach to ensuring the alarms ‘talk’ to each other via the RF signals. Ideally, this should be achieved at the push of a button on the alarm rather than a more involved process which is more time consuming and open to error.
 
System control
 
With alarm interconnection made easy, quick and cost effective, systems are growing. System expansion brings its own set of issues, including how best to control them. With a large system, it takes longer to test individual alarms and identify which alarm has triggered. Test, silence and locate switches are an important consideration here, so the system used should offer one in its range. The resident can test and silence all the alarms on the system from one conveniently placed switch, and also quickly identify the unit that has caused the alarm.
 
RF technology has resulted in other benefits, the most notable of which is the ability to connect a smoke alarm system with other life saving devices and systems, including carbon monoxide (CO) alarms, telecare/warden call systems, sprinkler systems and BS 5839-1 panel based fire alarm systems. 
 
Traditional relays enable domestic alarms to be linked to such devices, but as they do not contain the software and multiple inputs/outputs specifically needed for these applications, options are limited. 
One system providing a dedicated device designed and tested for this exact purpose is Aico’s Ei414 Fire/CO Alarm Interface. Such devices are reliable, easy to install and often come with added features, such as a setting to test the entire system, including a signal being transmitted to the third party system.
 
Data extraction
 
One of the newest technologies to be launched is data extraction. This phrase sounds complicated and seems inherently linked to IT, requiring a degree in computer engineering, but fear not! Data extraction technology has genuine benefits to offer, including information on battery back up or battery life, alarm sensor status, number of times tested and removed, and any alarm activation with details of when it occurred. 
 
In the past, data extraction has required specialist equipment or the removal of the alarm from the property, but all that has changed. With the latest generation of smoke and CO alarms, data can be extracted on site, in real time, all without taking the alarm off the ceiling. Furthermore, it doesn’t have to be at all complex. Some systems make use of free apps designed to work with specific manufacturers’ alarms. Once data has been extracted, the app turns it into an easy to digest report, with some identifying the urgency of any issue and even what action to take next. 
 
Technology is even being introduced to enable whole system data to be extracted, such as the number and location of alarms, which can be accessed securely from within or even outside a property if access is an issue. It’s a prime example of sophisticated technology made simple for the user. 
 
Bespoke training
 
No matter how far manufacturers go to make their technology easy to use, training is always beneficial. 
 
Customers are usually willing to commit to training, as they understand that they are dealing with potentially life saving devices and want to ensure an effective system. It also makes good business sense for contractors.
 
However, the old adage ‘time is money’ really does apply here. As time taken off to learn about a product requires time away from work, the training has to be delivered in a suitable way. This could amount to modular, bite sized training so it can be completed over a longer period of time. Deliverability of that training is also a consideration. Online training may be an option, but it has limitations – there is really nothing that can beat face to face, hands on training sessions. 
 
A CPD accredited training scheme is ideal and the training itself should cover subjects relating to domestic alarm installation, ranging from standards and regulations to alarm system design and installation, and specific technologies such as those mentioned above. Furthermore, a flexible, modular training course is beneficial for filling gaps in knowledge rather than starting from scratch. 
 
It’s safe to say we are living through times of great technological change, with the potential to make positive differences in our everyday lives. Never before has there been so much choice in the smoke alarm industry and so many feature rich alarms, but it is advisable to pick wisely. If the manufacturer has played its part, the latest alarm technology should not be difficult to understand.  
 
Martyn Walley is national technical manager at Aico Limited. For more information, view page 5

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