Remember Safety When Renovating

Because people’s homes can be part of their lives for many years, renovation is often undertaken to transform the living space to make it more aesthetically pleasing, functional or to serve new requirements. Whether it involves remodeling kitchens, bathrooms or other living spaces, renovation can be mind-bending. This is particularly true in older homes that may have been constructed with very few electrical outlets.

Today, requirements for modern kitchens include higher current wiring and outlets for many appliances. One area of utmost importance and confusion in renovation is the home’s fire and life-safety systems.

The NFPA 72 guide states that hardwired (AC powered) or battery-operated smoke detectors listed under UL 217 shall be replaced after 10 years. Considering that hardwired smoke detectors have been required in all new homes since the early 1970s, and that most of these detectors are still in service, this widens the timeframe of what is considered an “older home.” In fact, fire and life-safety renovations should be considered more frequently.

Keeping Up With Codes

Whether it’s a sketch on a cocktail napkin or full-blown architectural plans, some type of planning and design always comes first. Renovation of any area of an older home also requires that it be brought up to code. Usually this means only the section being renovated needs to be brought up to date.

The one exception is smoke alarms. If a permit is pulled for any type of repair or any work on a house, smoke alarms are required to be brought up to the current code. In fact, no matter when a home was built, you can’t sell it without meeting the current fire code.

Selecting the correct fire system for a home renovation project hinges on understanding state and local codes, and then installing the right products to meet those codes, according to fire alarm specialist Greg Smizer, owner of Sprint Security Inc. in Waltham, Mass. For 30+ years, he has been installing fire alarm and security systems in renovated homes across New England.

“Get to know your local authority having jurisdiction, your AHJ. Often, it is your state fire marshal. Get to know the local and state fire alarm codes. Become familiar with the various licenses and permits that apply to your job: NPFA 72, local building codes, state building codes, Article 760 of the National Electrical Code [NEC], to name a few,” advises Smizer.

Codes such as those from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) are what regulate fire system design. Another accepted nationwide code is the International Residential Code (IBC), which is implemented by the International Code Council (ICC).

According to Ronald Neissen, safety director for Brunswick, N.Y., ICC provides the framework for the adaptation to local code. ICC directives are rapidly becoming the “code of choice” for state and local governments that adopt and enforce building standards.

Breaking new ground in terms of code are those mandating carbon monoxide (CO) detectors. “In Massachusetts, Nicole’s Law stipulates that CO detectors must be installed in housing that uses fossil fuels or has enclosed parking,” says Smizer

In addition, NFPA 720, Standard for the Installation of Carbon Monoxide (CO) Detection and Warning Equipment, has been rewritten to keep up with the trend in state legislation requiring the installation of CO detectors. The adoption of the 2009 edition of NFPA 720 provides the industry with a national CO detector installation standard for all buildings, not just dwelling units. The new requirement for CO detectors is a critical step toward developing these requirements at the state and local levels.

Furthermore, some jurisdictions are including system-connected CO detectors in new ordinances. In fact, UL requires manufacturers of system-connected CO detectors to apply the same critical life-safety supervision concepts used for smoke detection devices in order to prevent undetected device failures.

Depending on the size of the home being renovated, also keep in mind that a fire alarm is needed when replacing large furnaces. In instances where the furnace is five tons or larger, a smoke alarm needs to be installed on the unit that would sound off and shut down the unit. According to Bob Walz, HVAC specialist and owner of New Comfort Inc. of Lakewood, Ohio, each unit has its own smoke alarm tied into the furnace system. This would shut down the system and delay the spread of a fire. 

Preparation Includes Permits

Where code inspections are required, a permit must be obtained from the local building department before beginning renovations. “In many cases,” Smizer says, “building, electrical and fire alarm permits are already in place. Normally, the fire marshal or an inspector reviews and approves the floor plans and locations of the fire detectors, alarms and sensors.” Permit regulations vary by state. Once approved, the installation can begin.

Smizer also recommends reviewing the renovation floor plans, as drastic changes can alter the existing structure. For example, the recent “This Old House” renovation of a 4,200-square-foot, 1897 Shingle-Style home in Newton, Mass., Smizer worked on changed considerably as existing spaces were used for new purposes. A porch became part of the master bedroom and an original dining room became a family room.

To guard against hazards associated with changing uses for building space, it is important for a fire-protection system to provide “total coverage.” As defined in NFPA 72, also known as the National Fire Alarm Code, total coverage is achieved with the proper type of detectors installed in appropriate locations.

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