Fire alarms in new builds – is BS 5839-6 being followed? | Carvell Group

Fire alarms in new builds – is BS 5839-6 being followed? | Carvell Group

Christopher Carvell MIET MIFSM PCQI, Managing Director and Principal Consultant at Carvell Group, discusses the shortfall in compliance issues around mains powered Grade D fire alarm systems in new build domestic dwellings.


Although British Standards are not legislation, it is accepted that within the built environment they do form the basis to what we work to as a minimum.


With many organisations referring to compliance with BS 5839-6 (the code of practice for the design, installation, commissioning and maintenance of fire detection and fire alarm systems in domestic premises) why, as an industry, do we fail to comply with this standard on so many levels?


This article will focus on the application of BS 5839-6 to new build houses.


Building Regulations, which is legislation, states that fire detection and alarm systems must be properly designed, installed, and maintained. It also states that third party certification schemes for fire protection products and services are an effective means of providing assurances of quality, reliability and safety.


The leading electrical third-party certification bodies provide schemes which assess an electrical contractor’s competence to deliver work activities in compliance with BS 7671. So, when a house builder or Building Control receives a certificate bearing the logo of a leading certification body with a signed declaration of compliance with BS 5839-6 one can understand that they would assume that there is a technical assessment supporting this certificate.


Somewhat surprisingly, there is not.


At present and despite the installation of mains powered Grade D fire detection and alarm systems being a staple of every electrician’s service offering neither of the leading electrical certification bodies offer a technical assessment scheme for mains powered fire detection and alarm systems.



As we know, the basis of any compliant installation is a compliant design. For any design to be carried out the designer needs to understand what is needed, with reference to Building Regulations Approved Document B1 which states that all dwellings should have a fire detection and alarm system, minimum Grade D2 (detectors with replaceable batteries) Category LD3 (smoke detection installed on hallways, landings and staircases that form the escape route), in accordance with the relevant recommendations of BS 5839-6.



So, what does BS 5839-6 actually recommend?


The standard says that where there is a need to specify a fire detection and fire alarm system for dwellings in which characteristics of the occupants are unknown (e.g. new dwellings) the recommendations given in Table 1 of the standard should be followed to select the type of system that shall be installed. Table 1 details all dwelling types and then details which system grade and category is appropriate for the dwelling type.


When one refers to Table 1 the minimum system for a new build owner occupied dwelling house is Grade D2 (detectors with replaceable batteries) Category LD2 (smoke detection installed on hallways, landings and staircases that form the escape route plus a heat detector installed in every kitchen and a smoke detector in the principal habitable rooms).


So, who is designing the fire detection and alarm systems in new build homes and why are they not following Building Regulations and applying the recommendations of the standard?


When consulting electrical contractors working in the new build housing sector it is universally communicated that the design of the fire detection and fire alarm system has already been undertaken and the electrical contractor is required to undertake the installation and commissioning elements and provide a certificate in compliance with BS 5839-6 on work completion.


It is also apparent that a design certificate is not made available to the electrical contractor or the home occupier by the housebuilder, despite both Building Regulations and BS 5839-6 stipulating that a design certificate is required.


Furthermore, it was also communicated that electrical contractors are advised to install an LD3 system by the housebuilder and, as such, when measured against the British Standard the fire detection and alarm system within new build homes fails to have fire detectors within the kitchens and principal habitable rooms.


Furthermore, without the design certificate being issued the organisation and person responsible for the design is not clearly defined and documented which often results in confusion regarding responsibility resting with the housebuilder or the electrical contractor.


There is evidence that many electrical contractors are signing a declaration for the design of the system, despite not having undertaken this element of work, and caused by the absence of a design certificate being issued by the actual designer.


Disability discrimination

New build homes understandably must cater for people of physical disability with the design and construction of the home being considerate to the accessibility of the dwelling. So, what about access to the user test button of the fire detection and alarm system?


BS 5839-6 states that Grade D systems can be provided with a low-level test switch to permit routine testing without the need to access test controls on the smoke or heat alarms themselves.


In the consideration of accessibility in new build homes being a priority and with the occupier characteristics not being known it is suggested that the recommendations of BS 5839-6 would be observed by any competent designer to ensure user testing was made accessible and, as such, would incorporate a low-level test controller mounted at switch height within their design.



The installer of the fire detection and alarm system is presented with many sets of criteria to comply with BS 5839-6. The main areas where compliance is not achieved are:


– Incorrect labelling of the mains power supply at the consumer unit

– Siting of detectors within no more than 3m from every bedroom door

– Siting of detectors more than 300mm away from walls and light fittings

– Fire stopping and fire sealing around cable penetrations.


Testing and commissioning

To comply with BS 5839-6 each smoke, heat, and multi-sensor must be functionally tested using apparatus that effectively tests if smoke can enter the chamber and/or the application of heat can effectively activate the detector at commissioning stage.


Consultation with electricians identified that detectors are not tested in accordance with the British Standard and furthermore electricians did not have access to the test equipment required.


Electricians stated that some manufacturers promote and recommend not undertaking detector testing using test apparatus and recommend the use of the user test button to carry out system commissioning.


This recommendation is a variation to BS 5839-6, and to comply with BS 5839-6 this variation must be agreed by all relevant parties including the purchaser. Evidence shows that the variation is not put forward for agreement and one wonders if a choice were put to the purchaser to either test in accordance with the British Standard or operate the user test button, what the likely answer would be.


Handover to the homeowner

BS 5839-6 states that the supplier of the system shall provide the occupier with some very specific and important documented information regarding the system installed within their home, which is too exhaustive to list within this article. The purpose of the documentation is to inform the home occupier on a host of matters, from system testing and false alarm limitation to actions to be taken in the event of a fire etc.


On consultation with electrical contractors the universal response was that they did not comply with BS 5839-6 in relation to the issuing of home occupier guidance documentation.


Building Control approval

Any Building Control approval must ensure that the system complies with BS 5839-6 and design, installation and commissioning certification is present. In instances where the design has not been undertaken by the installation and commissioning organisation, a separate certificate should be issued to comply with BS 5839-6.


One would also expect any competent Building Control Officer to inspect the installation as far as practicable to check that the system is compliant. But, given the issues raised in this article, can we be confident that Building Control are undertaking a robust assessment of the fire life safety system before approving a dwelling for occupation?


What is the solution?


– * Creation and adoption of a third-party certification scheme for Grade D mains powered fire detection and alarm systems by the electrical certification bodies.

– * Education of Building Control on how to check the specific compliance requirements of Grade D fire detection and alarm systems so they can protect the consumer.

– * Raise awareness with housebuilders on the benefits of the specification on the use of third-party scheme certificated designers and electrical contractors for installation, and commissioning.

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