It’s More than Just Smoke Alarms

firesprinklerThe Society of Fire Protection Engineers has invited NAHB to write a “Viewpoint” article discussing the residential construction industry’s view on fire safety.

The piece will run early this year, but we’re sharing it in advance with our members.

Home Building and Fire Safety

The National Association of Home Builders is a firm believer in safe, affordable homes. Our members have a vested interest in the safety of their products, both during the building process and after the house becomes someone’s home.

For that reason, home builders are active participants in the codes and standards development process, helping to make sure that each advance in building science and technology is weighed for the appropriate balance of safety, efficiency and cost to help ensure that each code cycle results in advances that improve homes without pricing them out of reach.

The home builder acts as a consumer advocate, offering counterpoint to code change proposals that benefit particular brands or products.

And when it comes to advances in fire safety technology, our members are proud to produce homes built to building codes designed to keep their occupants safer than homes built in previous generations.

There have been significant improvements to the fire safety of homes over the past few decades, leading to a dramatic, continued decrease in fires, injury, death and property loss. As fire safety professionals know, fire deaths have decreased by over 60% since 1960 (50% since 1978), while the death rate based on population size has decreased by well over 70%.

Technological innovations in building techniques include advanced heating and electrical systems, egress windows, hardwired, interconnected smoke alarm systems, and fire-resistant materials and features like the separation between the house and the garage and fireblocking in concealed spaces.

When home owners combine these advances with proper maintenance, homes stay safer. And as more of the existing housing stock that doesn’t include these improved fire safety features is replaced, this trend will continue.

Why Smoke Alarms Matter

The effectiveness of smoke alarms cannot be underestimated. Hardwired, interconnected smoke alarms have been required by NFPA 72, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code since 1989, and continue to become more effective with ongoing technical advances.

Such improvements include the proliferation of 10-year integral batteries, which substantially lengthen the interval between low-battery signals. Batteries in these units also cannot be used in other devices, which eliminates the possibility of the battery being removed to power other electronic devices.

There is also continued research aimed at improving the detection logarithm to greatly reduce false alarms from cooking. All these improvements are still unfolding, and can be expected to further reduce the number of fatalities. And throughout the country, local home building associations often work with community fire departments on fire safety campaigns and to ensure that consumers take advantage of this life-saving technology by conducting awareness campaigns and even donating new units.

This education and awareness is vital, because the main causes of unintentional, non-confined home fires are heating equipment and electrical malfunction, both primarily associated with older homes. New homes are equipped with new heating appliances with clearances, vents, and chimneys in accordance with current codes as well as additional safety features, making them more reliable and producing a more balanced airflow reducing the need for supplemental heaters, which are more likely to start a fire.

And FEMA’s report One- and Two-Family Residential Building Fires (2011-2013) finds “a strong relationship between housing age and the rate of electrical fires . . . with housing over 40 years old having the strongest association with electrical distribution fires. As of 2013, the median age of one- and two-family housing was over 35 years.”

The report also notes a 2008 study that found, “there are three major areas in older properties that contribute to compromised electrical systems: the effects of aging on the wiring itself, misuse and abuse of the electrical components, and non-code-compliant installations.”

Going forward, it is important to carefully consider any additional requirements so we don’t put safer new homes financially out of reach for those households now in older dwellings.

It is a sad irony when Americans cannot afford to be safe. Families who cannot qualify to purchase homes due to the increased costs from well-meant, but expensive and ultimately unnecessary safety features will remain in housing that is less safe, because it’s built to less stringent code requirements. These older homes can have outdated appliances, space heaters, faulty wiring, or other characteristics that might lead to a greater risk of a fire starting, or a lack of smoke alarms and egress windows installed to today’s codes which increase the chances of dying in that fire.

For that reason, we take our code development responsibilities very seriously. We must ensure that new homes are safe, but not just available to the wealthy.


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  1. Dave says:

    Please consider that today’s new home will become an “older” home, one purchased and occupied by families who cannot afford to buy a new home 10, 15, 20, or hopefully 50 years from now. I would encourage NAHB to continue to ensure that homes are safe, not just available to the wealthy, but also in consideration of those future homeowners that will benefit from safety, efficiency, and durability features, beyond the 7-8 years of typical ownership. Often, the incremental cost of construction is relatively low when compared to the cost of retrofitting an older home. Thank you.

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