Smoke Alarms in Rental Properties

alarmThere is no question that smoke alarms are a key warning device in reducing deaths caused by fires in the home. According to the NZ Fire Service, smoke alarms were either not installed or not working in 80% of house fires they attended last year! There is a lot of interest and debate about whether property owners are required by law to provide smoke alarms for rental properties.

What are the current legal requirements?

The Residential Tenancies Act 1986 does not have specific sections that apply to the requirement of landlords to provide smoke alarms. However, section 45C specifies a landlord must “comply with all requirements in respect of buildings, health, and safety under any enactment so far as they apply to the premises.” This means that all houses must comply with the Building Act 2004.

The current Building Act 2004 requires that all new houses and consented alterations provide “means of detection and warning” in the event of fire. Like the Review of the Residential Tenancies Act, the Department of Building and Housing is currently preparing a Building Act Review, so changes may occur. Although the current regulation does not apply to existing properties, the requirement for alarms will usually be triggered if you are carrying out any building works that require an application for building consent from your local council.

What is the best type of smoke alarm?

The two main types of fire alarms available are Ionisation and Photoelectric alarms. Consumer.org.nz have carried out research on various alarms and report the following:

Ionisation alarms sense the volatile combustion products from hot flaming fires, but don’t do as good a job sensing the smoke from cooler smouldering fires because fewer combustion products are present.

Photoelectric alarms shine a light beam across a chamber and detect if the air in the chamber becomes partially obscured, detecting smoke from both types of fires.

The NZ Fire Service also provides some good recommendations on the types of alarms that are available. The best type will usually depend on the type of property, your budget and personal preference.

What other options are there?

Alarms can be powered from different sources. Battery Operated (DC) smoke alarms can provide detection if there is a power failure, provided they are installed correctly and the batteries are charged. This is often the most cost effective. AC powered smoke alarms are powered by mains and will only provide detection if power doesn’t fail. These can be slightly more expensive and must be installed by a certified electrician. AC with battery back up is generally the most comprehensive and will provide detection even when there is power failure – as long as batteries are fresh and correctly installed. Many smoke alarms now have long life batteries that can last up to 10 years.

Where should I install fire alarms?

All properties will generally have different requirements depending on the location, size, number of levels and exits. Generally alarms should be installed in hallways as close to the bedrooms as possible, as the alarms must be audible to people sleeping on the other side of closed doors. The bigger the home the more alarms are required and most alarms will come with instructions on where to install them. The NZ Fire Service provides some good guidelines and The Building Act 2004 provides information on the specific types of smoke alarms that are required and some guidelines on where to install them. All alarms should be installed in conjunction with the manufacturers’ instructions. There are also guidelines on where not to install them, such as kitchens.

Other important issues to consider

Smoke alarms may be ineffective if covered in dust/dirt or obstructed in any other way. This is likely to occur if tenants smoke in properties (usually flats and apartments) and cover the alarms. Many building managers will tell stories of tenants obstructing smoke detectors and some body corp rules/building regulations now prohibit this obstruction and issue fines to tenants who do this. The fire service may also charge tenants or landlords for false callouts.

Educating tenants in utilising the effectiveness of the alarms is also the key, including the potential outcomes if they obstruct alarms or fail to check them regularly. Smoke alarms will also be ineffective if they are not installed in the correct locations in the home.

Smoke alarms are also available for people with hearing impairments. These special purpose alarms provide additional warnings such as visual alarms and when one is activated, generally all activate to provide a more comprehensive warning system.

In closure smoke alarms are a single warning device and should not be relied on as a complete fire detection system. A comprehensive system would also include the use of sprinkler systems, fire-resistant materials and fire exits.

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