/ Home & Energy

How often do you check your smoke alarm?

smoke alarm

Do you have a smoke alarm in your home? If you do, you’re not alone. But how often do you test it and do you even know if it’s up to the job it’s supposed to do?

New Which? research is reassuringly positive about the widespread ownership of this potentially life-saving little product, with 19 out of 20 Which? members telling us that they have an alarm fitted and eight out of ten having more than one around their home.

But ownership is one thing – do you know if your smoke alarm actually works and do you ever test it?

The same Which? research revealed that fewer than one in twenty Which? members checks their alarms regularly enough.

Just 4% of smoke alarm owners told us that they run a weekly alarm check, which is recommended by the London Fire Brigade. Seven in ten owners admitted to checking their alarms only every six months or even less frequently than that. And 2% of owners admitted to never checking their alarms at all.

Which? survey results

With products like this – where being in working order is absolutely critical but impossible to tell – running a check every week is the best way you can make sure your smoke alarm is primed and ready to let you know when there’s a fire. So, why not ink it in to the diary alongside something you do weekly, such as cooking the Sunday roast or putting the bins out?

Don’t Buy smoke alarm

Which? tests shows that you can’t always trust the alarms you find in the shops to sound when you need them to.

When we last tested smoke alarms in November 2013, one of them failed our tests. Then, when we tested carbon monoxide alarms in November 2016, we found three that would let you down.

And now, following our most recent smoke alarms test, yet another product designed to save lives has failed at the one job it’s meant to do.

Our tests suggest that in certain types of fast-flaming fires, such as those caused by plastics and solvents, the Don’t Buy Devolo Home Control Smoke Detector (30%, £53-£163) may not sound. This is what we found with one of the two samples we tested.

A second sample of this Devolo alarm passed all of our fire tests, but only just made it through the flaming plastics fire test, triggering at the very last permitted moment.

Devolo told us that safety is its number one concern and it aims to follow the highest international standards. It went on to say it’s concerned by our results and that the alarm has passed standard safety tests at two certified test labs.

But we’re so worried about the safety implications of this smoke alarm failing our tests that we’re calling on Devolo to remove it from sale while it investigates. We have passed our findings on to Trading Standards.

Do you have a smoke alarm fitted in your home or even more than one? How often do you check it?

Comments
Profile photo of duncan lucas
Member

I am sure I posted this before but under the social services / county council policy we had two fire /smoke alarms fitted by the Fire Department in three rooms (total 6 detectors ) that flash continuously . As I have said previously we also have a county council ( yearly charge ) emergency alarm connected to the land -line going to a local call-centre who run this service. As I was embarrassed to say I burnt toast on the grill forgetting I had it on unknown to me (at the time ) I did not know the detectors+ the emergency alarms were connected together by radio . This set off an alarm in the call-centre saying the house was on fire and yes the Fire Service called to the small village sirens blazing I had to humbly apolgise for calling them out but it did prove they were working okay. I also have separate detector for the central heating supplied by BG.

Profile photo of Lauren Deitz
Member

Wow, that’s a very safe set-up you have there!

Member
Aileen, Edinburgh says:
26 August 2017

I don’t think the Fire Brigade would have been all that bothered because I’m sure they’d prefer to discover it was a false alarm than turn up too late to save people’s lives due to alarms which don’t work properly or don’t work at all. I live in a rented flat so have no control over which brand of alarms are fitted, but must have woken the neighbours up at 1 am one night when smoke from a very small amount of over-heated hot cooking oil set the whole lot off! If nothing else, at least it proved their efficiency. They’re all connected to the electricity supply, so no danger of being switched off or batteries running out, so I would strongly recommend that other people get similar alarms. You should still test them fairly regularly though just in case there’s a malfunction somewhere.

Profile photo of duncan lucas
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Profile photo of Lauren Deitz
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I thought some of you may be interested to know that the smoke alarms test standard is issued by BSI (formerly the British Standards Institue), so we asked BSI why the standard is so tolerant of tardy alarms and it responded:

‘The standard covers ionisation and optical alarms, and the test fires ensure that whichever type is used, the alarm provides adequate warning when there is a real fire.’

But we’re not convinced this is good enough – we think there needs to be a stricter new standard that only rewards alarms that sound more quickly and have shared our response-time concerns with BSI. BSI has responded to this and said that new smoke alarm standard is being drafted.

Profile photo of wavechange
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I agree, Lauren. It would be good if BSI provided test scores for smoke alarms, like Which? product reviews do.

When I moved home I was disappointed how quiet the existing mains-powered interlinked smoke alarms were, so I replaced them with ones that might wake me up if there was a fire. I also bought some battery-operated ‘Best Buy’ smoke alarms and they are loud. That is important if you follow advice and close all doors at night.

Profile photo of malcolm r
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The standard is European, implemented in the UK (as most are) by BSI as BS EN 14604. Standards are automatically reviewed at no more than 5 year intervals. There is a European Draft that closed to comments last year which I imagine will lead to a revised standard when all bodies have considered the responses.

The current standard requires an alarm to sound, under a variety of conditions, when a particular aerosol density has been reached in a smoke tunnel it seems. Various sources of fire are used in the tests.

@ldeitz, I’d be interested to see the results of your tests that suggest tardiness, and the relevant part of the standard that you feel needs addressing. I had a quick look through the standard, but could not see a reference to a time to respond, only reference to a “smoke” (aerosol) density threshold at which the alarm should initiate. May have missed it. I assume your testing is done in accordance with the standard.

The draft for comment does give a maximum response time to slowly developing fires.

I have several times commented on how useful it would be if Which? were active in the BSI and directly involved in the consideration of standards. This is a good example perhaps of where their experience would be of value.

Profile photo of wavechange
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I would be interested to know if smoke and carbon monoxide alarms that perform poorly in Which? tests are non-compliant with the standards or if the standards should be more demanding.

Profile photo of malcolm r
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This standard provides the minimum acceptable basis on which all compliant products should operate, under a variety of conditions and fire types. If it reliably detects a fire, gives an adequately audible signal, works in humid or high temperature conditions, gives repeatable results in testing, withstands battery reversal, deals with false information…..in other words if it passes a range of stringent tests (20 samples are used) then it will be deemed to comply. The basic performance criteria is then whether they reliably detect a likely fire. If they do, they pass, if they don’t, they fail.

It seems to me that if you reduce the time to alarm, that suggests a lower aerosol threshold initiates the device which suggests it is more likely to give a false alarm. You could rate then on loudness of the alarm, robustness of design, battery life perhaps, whether it contains an escape light, price for example but these are not for a standards institution to comment on.

Profile photo of wavechange
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I take your point about false alarms, Malcolm. Many have a mute button to silence them temporarily, which seems a better option than making the alarm less sensitive.

I am very glad that we have standards – as I have said on many occasions – but if products were given ratings or even an overall rating, that would encourage improvement. Not everyone can afford to pay a subscription to Which?

Several years ago I bought a new smoke alarm with escape light to replace an old one that did not have a very good light. I assumed that the small lamp was a high intensity LED. No – it was a smaller bulb than the old one, and was far less effective. I think I gave the details in an old Conversation.

Profile photo of Lauren Deitz
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Hi Malcolm – the full results are in the September edition of the magazine, but you can see the ‘Don’t Buy’ results and overall results of the testing here: http://www.which.co.uk/news/2017/08/unsafe-smoke-alarm-revealed-by-new-which-tests/

Profile photo of malcolm r
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As far as I can see from the EN standard, the tests measure the threshold value of the aerosol density at which the alarm is triggered – in other words, the smoke density when the alarm goes off. This is measured under specified conditions in a smoke tunnel. So it is not the time it takes to alarm to a given smoke density, but to the smoke density at which the alarm responds. The alarm must trigger within a specified range of smoke densities – clause 5.5.3. That is my understanding after a quick scan but perhaps someone will correct me if I’m wrong.

When testing products it is important to do it precisely to the laid down test regime to achieve meaningful results; they have been thought through and developed over many years. If the test regime used is different then results are not comparable.

Were the Which? tests conducted exactly in accordance with BSEN 14604? Were all the products certified to the BSEN (they should carry a kitemark or the equivalent as well as the standard number) or did they simply claim compliance. If the latter, then it would be interesting to check whether the claim is met by testing exactly to the standard. If they fail then they may well be accused of misrepresentation.

Profile photo of wavechange
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Years ago, a Which? report alerted me to the fact that I had a smoke alarm that performed poorly in the Which? tests. I followed the advice and contacted the manufacturer and was send a replacement cover with more holes to allow smoke to enter. As simple as that.

Smoke alarm batteries are sometimes removed and used for other purposes or because of nuisance alarms. A very good feature that I have seen in some alarms is a device to prevent the alarm being replaced on its base without a battery. It would be good to see more manufacturers copy safety features from others.

I would like to see simple battery clips phased out because have never been reliable, in my opinion. There are other better alternatives. An increasing number of smoke and carbon monoxide alarms have non-replaceable batteries. That’s certainly sensible in the case of carbon monoxide alarms, where the sensor has a limited life. I am not convinced it is necessary with ionisation smoke alarms. I have one that is 37 years old and it still work fine. It was pensioned off because the plastic had gone yellow.

Profile photo of malcolm r
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The cover would need to be designed to allow the appropriate aerosol density to trigger the alarm. That seems to be the BSEN criterion. Otherwise it would not have passed the standard. Maybe it never did?

Profile photo of wavechange
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Relying on compliance rather than independent testing of products is always going to be second best, in my opinion. I wonder what system is in place to check that smoke detectors marked as compliant actually meet the standards required by law. It is good that Which? does pick up safety issues in product testing but they do not test all products.

Profile photo of malcolm r
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For a product to carry the national mark or equivalent – Kitemark in the case of BSI – they must have been independently tested by an approved national laboratory. For a product to be described as complying with a standard, and to carry a CE mark if applicable, it must have full documentary evidence to show that it has been tested in complete accordance with the appropriate standard. It is illegal to market products in the UK and Europe if they do not. BSI et all cannot stop cheats. That is the job of others to catch and prosecute – Trading Standards for example.

Profile photo of wavechange
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I understand the present system but I think it could be improved. Anyway, let’s get back on topic.

Profile photo of malcolm r
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This seems very much on topic. “But we’re so worried about the safety implications of this smoke alarm failing our tests that we’re calling on Devolo to remove it from sale while it investigates. We have passed our findings on to Trading Standards.

i

Profile photo of wavechange
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That’s thanks to the efforts of Which? and not thanks to the system we have in place to ensure that products are safe. Thankfully, everyone will benefit, assuming action is taken, and not just subscribers.

Profile photo of malcolm r
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We do not know what tests Which? carried out yet, so do not know if the device failed to meet the safety standard or not. This all needs clarifying before we condemn any system, but I don’t quite know what “system” you refer to. There is a clear system for testing and marking products, but this can be circumvented by cheating. The loss of protection from Trading Standards seems a good place to start to tackle that..

Profile photo of wavechange
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I appreciate that we need clarification. One of my greatest concerns is that the system of setting minimum standards fails to promote improvement, as I said earlier. At least cars are subjected to NCAP safety ratings, food premises are given food hygiene ratings, and so on. I would hope that better businesses would support this.

Meanwhile back on topic, we are left with some smoke detectors being better than others and the general public may not know which to choose unless they are a Which? subscriber. 🙁
At least there was a Which? press release and the topic has been covered in the news: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-41033313

Profile photo of malcolm r
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There are reviews of products online available to the public. Should all Which? reviews be made public free of charge? I don’t see quite how you get round this.

A “minimum” standard does not mean it is defective in its aspirations. it simply says your product must show it meets all these conditions for it to be allowed onto the market. It must do the job for which it is intended. There is absolutely nothing to stop manufacturers exceeding the requirements of the standard. The job of a smoke alarm is to sound a warning as soon as the aerosol reaches a particular level. There seems no point in it doing it at a lower level, presumably because of false alarms. So when you say “some smoke detectors are better than others” they should all detect possible fire equally well. so do you mean they have more features?

The Which? press release includes “An investigation by the consumer group found some alarms could take twice as long to sound as others, with one brand failing to go off at all – despite having BSI Kitemark certification.”. As the standard referred to by the Kitemark appears not to use time to sound, but aeorosol density at which to sound, I’d like to understand better how Which? did their testing and how the results are compatible with the standard’s requirements. As I said earlier, if a product that is Kitemarked fails the BSEN testing, then that is a problem to take up with BSI as it could lead to a licence being withdrawn from the manufacturer. However, we should know how many samples have been tested; the BSEN requires 20, that should all perform within stated parameters. It is possible to have a defective product sample of course but that should be a very rare occurrence..

Profile photo of wavechange
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I would like to see Which? product tests of safety devices such as smoke detectors freely available. It might encourage more subscribers. I don’t know, but it seems socially responsible to me.

If smoke detectors have widely different response times then there can be little doubt that there is a problem. It could be that the tests have not been carried out under the same conditions, the products are not compliant or the standards need updating. Fire can spread very rapidly in the home, as the fire services frequently point out.

Sample number is, I believe, a weakness in Which? testing and probably always has been. I was trained (and trained others) that it is important to specify sample size when writing reports. On the other hand, if any smoke detector underperforms, that is a good reason to investigate further.

We might as well wait to find out more. I wonder what happened about the underperforming carbon monoxide alarms that Which? discovered on sale online. That was months ago.

Profile photo of JohnJ
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Could the issue be the consequence of private companies involved on various BSI standard review boards who have a conflict of interest between their own products and having influence over how standards are formed, are revised and implemented?

Profile photo of malcolm r
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This is a list of those on the BSI committee John. However, BSI are only one participant in developing and reviewing this standard. Other standards bodies internationally are involved and will consider and implement changes.
Committee members BSI FSH/12/2

Expert – CEN/TC 72/WG 12 and ISO/TC 21/SC 3/WG 8 + 24
UK Expert – CEN/TC 72/WG 14
Expert – CEN/TC 72/WG 12 (EN 54-31)
Fire and Security Association
Chief Fire Officers Association
Committee Chair
Committee Secretary
UL International (UK) Ltd
B R E – Building Research Establishment
National Landlords Association
UK Expert – CEN/TC 72/WG 16
F I A – Fire Industry Association
UK Expert – CEN/TC 72/WG 18
Action on Hearing Loss
Convenor CEN/TC 72/WG 10
UK Expert – CEN/TC 72/WG 6
Expert – ISO/TC 21/SC 3/WG 24
Convenor – CEN/TC 72/WG 4 and WG 20
British Fire Consortium.

Profile photo of wavechange
Member

Each week I check the heat and carbon monoxide detectors in the kitchen and utility room and the mains-powered interlinked alarms. Holding down the test button on interlinked alarms sets off the others, which shows that they are working properly. Don’t forget to check the backup batteries in mains-powered alarms. When I moved in to my present home, I found the backup batteries were ten years old.

I have a smoke detector in each occupied room and they are checked when I remember, which is often weekly and never more than a month. In my previous home the ceilings were higher and I used a stick to press the test button on alarms. A selfie-stick might be ideal for the job. 🙂

In addition to the heat detector in the kitchen I have a smoke detector on a hook. When grilling, it gets put in the dining room, usually after I have been deafened. OK, it’s a nuisance but knowing that it would respond to a fire faster than a heat alarm, it’s well worth having in my opinion. Having a smoke detector in the kitchen has saved a few non-stick pans from being destroyed when something has boiled dry.

Profile photo of wavechange
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No need for a selfie-stick to test smoke alarms that are out of reach. Just use a plastic hand on a stick:

Source: BBC News http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-23043144

Profile photo of duncan lucas
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If its any help the ones installed by the Fire Department in my house are Chub and Fireangel + BG carbon monoxide alarm has the BS kitemark. I know Chub locks are good as I have my outside door fitted with one . I haven’t checked to see if any were made in the Land of Built to a Price but they seem quality items and the “flashes given off are short term sharp flashes .

Profile photo of wavechange
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I suspect that Chubb and BG alarms might be manufactured by another company, as happens with other products. Looking at an unused Kidde smoke alarm, the carton says custom assembled in China. 🙁

Profile photo of duncan lucas
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According to Chubb (USA ) they see themselves as the “darling ” of the Donald,s drive for -Made in America – thats right they supply aviation/defense / government etc all manufactured in the US of A -and proud of it.Not only that Wavechange I am looking at a coloured picture of a US factory making Chubb products with the heading of US jobs and integrity . Checking on Fireangel. Aaaaarrrrrh !!! company called Sprue and after intense web checking manufactured in —-the Land of Built to a Price and so are Sprue supplied gas detectors to BG .

Profile photo of wavechange
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It’s no secret. Sprue is mentioned on the homepage of the FireAngel website and on product leaflets. I think FA must have a contract with the fire services because they are often fitted free following a home inspection. I would have thought we could have managed to make smoke detectors in the UK.

Profile photo of duncan lucas
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KIddie is rated as one of their competition Wavechange and your right Fireangel is their product name for supples to the UK Fire Service.

Member
keith says:
25 August 2017

After the Grenville fire you think the Government would make sure the testing of Fire alarms/detecters and the such would be up to standard or indeed above it, so people don’t needless die in house fires.
As for one of mine placed in a hallway it goes off everytime i open the oven door in the kitchern, and that heat not smoke.

Profile photo of malcolm r
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To comply with the European safety standard BS EN 14604 smoke alarms must pass stringent tests under a range of circumstances.

Profile photo of wavechange
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I don’t understand how opening the oven door would set off a heat detector in the hall. The reason for fitting heat detectors is to avoid nuisance operation caused by cooking smoke, steam, etc.

Profile photo of malcolm r
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Could be smokey fumes from the oven contents that could equally be a fire – just like your toaster can set the alarm off.

Profile photo of wavechange
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I have not seen a heat alarm set off by cooking. I have always been a little unsure about whether pressing the test button really means that smoke detectors would work in emergency.

I don’t have a toaster because I do not like toast. Visitors are welcome to use the grill.

Profile photo of malcolm r
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@mstevens, I ve now received the online preview of the smoke alarm report. Smoke alarms are required to comply with BSEN 14604. As far as I can see the tests required are that the alarm is triggered within a specified range of smoke densities to be approved.
Am I right that your testing does not do this, but gives the time to alarm from when it sees smoke? If so, what density of smoke does the test use? And, if so, why do you use a quite different approach from the European Standard? I am curious at the seemingly different approach if it is indeed so. I may have misunderstood the BSEN.

Profile photo of wavechange
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http://www.which.co.uk/reviews/smoke-alarms/article/how-we-test-smoke-alarms

“Can slow smoke alarms still pass official smoke alarm tests?
Which? smoke alarm tests have revealed a repeated pattern of safe-seeming products having wildly varying response times. But according to the official safety testing method – which measures the amount and thickness of smoke that is required to trigger the alarm – these products can all be classified as meeting the BS EN 14604 standard. BSI (formerly the British Standards Institute) issues the smoke alarms test standard. We asked why it is so tolerant of tardy alarms, and it said: ‘The standard covers ionisation and optical alarms, and the test fires ensure that whichever type is used, the alarm gives adequate warning when there is a real fire.’ We don’t think this is good enough and that’s why we penalise the alarms that take too long to sound and why only the fastest go on to become Best Buy smoke alarms. There needs to be a stricter new standard that only rewards the alarms that sound more quickly. We’ve raised our response-time concerns with BSI, which said that a new smoke alarms standard is being drafted. We’ll take a close look at it and make our feelings known if it doesn’t go far enough to protect people when there’s a fire.”

We are told that the alarms are tested according to the standard. Which? are pushing for higher standards and communicating their concerns to BSI.

Profile photo of malcolm r
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I have asked if the tests are conducted to the BSEN standard requirements. Until Which? tell exactly how they conduct their tests, they may not be. The BSEN measures at what smoke density an alarm is triggered. The Which? results are based on how long it takes an alarm to sound in (as yet) unspecified smoke conditions. On the face of it these are not the same. I’ll wait for Which? to explain.

Member
bishbut says:
26 August 2017

Mine fitted by the Fire Brigade are so sensitive that I have known for very hot sunshine to set them off All 3 have been set off with not excessive heat so from time to time I know they are working without having to check

Member
Colin says:
28 August 2017

The Which test results seem worrying, but there is also danger in having alarms that are over-sensitive, as, if there are too many false alarms, residents simply remove the battery. Having alarms wired into the mains (a legal requirement in rental properties, and sensible anywhere) stops this, but doesn’t prevent people covering the alarm with a polythene bag!

Profile photo of malcolm r
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BSI have issued a reply to Which?
https://www.bsigroup.com/en-GB/about-bsi/media-centre/press-releases/2017/august/BSI-response-to-Which-article-on-smoke-alarms/
I do hope Which? take up the offer to have their results reviewed and, equallyimportant, to take a proper part in BSI’s work on standards development.

The response includes “ BSI has not KitemarkTM certified all of these products and BSI did not certify the Devolo alarm that Which? claimed failed two of the four tests. Others may have been tested and certified by different independent third parties to check it meets the requirements of the standard.
and
The test fires set out in the standard are designed to ensure that whichever technology is used, or the type of fire encountered, the smoke alarm provides adequate warning in the event of a real fire. The tests conducted are designed to measure the smoke alarms response to the very early stages of a developing fire. This is to ensure the smoke alarm provides adequate warning in the event of a real fire. .”

Profile photo of wavechange
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Thanks very much for the update, Malcolm. I agree that Which? should work with BSI, particularly over safety issues. I don’t think Which? has claimed that the alarm in question has failed any of the tests covered by the official standard, just found that it does not perform as well as other models in its own tests.

Profile photo of malcolm r
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I’d like to see Which?’s explanation of their test regime and if it differs from the BSEN before commenting, wavechange.

Profile photo of wavechange
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Let’s help we are kept well informed. It is encouraging that BSI has issued a press release so promptly.

Member
Malcolm G says:
29 August 2017

Do any alarms indicate they have made a low battery beep but have now stopped?
(I find they start beeping around 3am when it is cool and then stop during the day – which can result in weeks of slightly disturbed sleep before when identify which unit is doing it)

Profile photo of wavechange
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I don’t think so. My suggestion is to replace the batteries regularly and I use the removed batteries in other products that take the same type of battery. Annual battery replacement should mean that you don’t hear annoying bleeps when the house cools down overnight.

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OK – I normally buy 10 year battery models – and in my experience they last between 5 and 8 years. I did wonder about just replacing them every 2 years.

Profile photo of wavechange
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Carbon monoxide alarms should be replaced by the date recommended because the sensor used has a limited life.

Smoke alarms are supposed to be replaced by the expiry date too, but I have a 1980 Black & Decker smoke alarm that still works fine. It is taken into the garage when I am working on DIY projects, and I bring it into the house afterwards because the advice is not to have them in garages. If I leave it on a kitchen worktop it goes off when I use the grill.

Member
David Browning says:
29 August 2017

I recently had a visit from my local Fire Station when I asked for advice on alarms in my [supposedly] ‘state of the art’ modern apartment. They were most helpful; pointed out the short-comings in the systems provided and asked key questions about my concerns. They were astute, noticing that I had hearing aids in both ears – which I remove at night. Consequently, they fitted an additional smoke alarm in the adjoining hallway, and a device on my bedside table – which, if the alarm sounds, I simply hit this hand-sized device with the palm of my hand, and a fire engine crew will be sent to my apartment immediately. Needless to say – this was most reassuring.

Profile photo of wavechange
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That’s a good point, David. There is little point in having alarms if you cannot hear them.

Member
Shailesh says:
29 August 2017

How does one know that the Smoke Alarm installed in the home is safe? My smoke alarms are some 20 + yrs old. They bleep every time the battery dies/low and i change the battery. Surely, this is enough knowing they bleep on low battery?

Any feedback appreciated so i can change my habbits

Profile photo of wavechange
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The advice from Which? is to replace smoke alarms every ten years. It is in one of the articles on this page: http://www.which.co.uk/reviews/smoke-alarms/article/guides The ones I bought most recently say to replace after five years. 🙁

Profile photo of Jacqueline25
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Just seen Which Sept 2017 Best Buy Smoke Alarm – Fire Angel with a 10 year fixed battery. Avon and Somerset Fire service fitted two of these alarms for my 91 year old mother in 2014 and both alarms have packed up. The first alarm battery died in June and the second this week August. They were new stock when fitted as both alarms state that the batteries should last until 2024 but they only lasted for two and a half years! Fortunately, my mother’s hearing is good so she heard the constant low battery chirping. Both smoke alarms have had to be replaced as you can’t replace the batteries. Currently, Tool Station have these alarms reduced so wondered if other people have had problems with them.

Profile photo of wavechange
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I suggest contacting the company, Jacqueline. The company that makes them is Sprue and the contact details will be in the leaflet or on the web. That would make them aware of the problem and hopefully you would be sent replacements even if they were supplied by the Fire Service.

Edit: A problem with faulty batteries in FireAngel ST-620 and ST-622 smoke alarms was reported last year: http://www.thisismoney.co.uk/money/news/article-3554501/Top-British-smoke-alarm-manufacturer-admits-90-000-popular-devices-faulty.html

Profile photo of VernonTaylor
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Clearly the majority of the public need educating about smoke alarms as the article has made it plain not all smoke alarms are created equal and the BSI Kitemark is no guarantee of either quality or performance.

I think most people most of the time who want or need a smoke alarm think of the display buckets of “pile them high and sell them cheap” alarms that used to be commonly seen at popular stores in the days when the smoke alarm was new and few folk had them and many of those who did found them to be such a nuisance when frying food that the battery was removed and forgotten. Of course few people invest in a stock of spare batteries because to the poor and minimum paid workers and pensioners (currently 10 million and climbing), buying anything just to sit on a shelf is an unwelcome and unnecessary expense. The cost of a quality alkaline battery is not insignificant to such people and in a smoke alarm a cheap battery is a waste of time so many alarms languish in only an ornamental capacity.
I have seen several hanging in tatters as the tenant has grown sick of the constant chirping and being unable to reach the alarm has resorted to hitting it with a broom or walking stick…

I have four alarms, one on each floor of our chimney-like stairwell and I press the button of each one every few weeks. I also have two spare alarms and a couple of spare batteries. So far I have only needed to replace one alarm.

Clearly pressing the button is not the way a smoke alarm should be tested and what is needed is a smoke source that produces a fair mixture of different types of smoke, some sort of smoke candle perhaps that could be sold very cheaply on a “pile them high and sell them cheap” basis in popular stores – the only way most folk would buy them.

Profile photo of wavechange
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We have not managed to educate most of the public to test their smoke alarms frequently enough, so I question whether we can expect them to investigate which ones to buy. For me, the focus should be on best standards and ensuring that substandard or counterfeit products are dealt with promptly.

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There is no evidence that Kitemarked smoke alarms are not fit for purpose. Until we understand Which?’s tests I suggest we cannot assess their validity.

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I grew up in N Ireland in the 70s & 80s. Back then the local independent TV channel (UTV) had a once a week slot in their early evening local news programme – Thursdays, I think – when they advised viewers to go and test their smoke alarms. They showed a still image and played music for a few minutes. I don’t know if other local TV stations did the same thing – but I believed then, and still do believe, that it was a great idea, and should be resurrected. Once a week, say between 18:55 and 19:00 the BBC and ITV should have a pause in their schedules with a still image and a caption “Go test your smoke alarm”.

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It seems that there is concern that the upper limit at which smoke alarms sound in the 4 fires test specified in the European Standard might be too high; hence the delay in the time it takes for some alarms to sound. This is a very valid concern but what needs investigating is the basis of the upper and lower limits specified in the standard; there may well be good reasons why that range has been developed over the years – or not.

The way to deal with this, as I have proposed earlier, is to sit down with the standards developers and to discuss the basis and the consequences on smoke alarms in practice. BSI and Which? are, I believe, now getting together to look at this. This is a far better approach than sniping from the sidelines but not properly engaging. Which? has some knowledge, expertise, test experience and comments from Members and Convo contributors that should allow for a constructive debate.

What I don’t like to see is public criticism of a standard until the facts are properly established. That undermines those with whom we should be engaging. Which? say “BSI – formerly the British Standards Institute – issues the smoke alarms test standard. We asked why this standard is so tolerant of tardy alarms. It told us: ‘The standard covers ionisation and optical alarms, and the test fires ensure that whichever type is used, the alarm provides adequate warning when there is a real fire.’ One issue is how you detect a genuine fire without too great an incidence of false alarms; smoke alarms detect the symptoms of a possible fire from aerosols in the air. So examining the range within which domestic alarms could and should sound seems the topic to discuss.

Incidentally, BSI issue the international standard in the UK, and must do so without any changes (unless there are national peculiarities to consider). Any change to the standard will involve the agreement of participating countries through their national standards organisations – the equivalents of BSI. Our input is to the international committee via BSI.

Read more: http://www.which.co.uk/news/2017/08/unsafe-smoke-alarm-revealed-by-new-which-tests/ – Which?

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The sensitivity of alarms can be reviewed by the relevant committee but I hope we will see a proper response by BSI regarding the concerns raised by Which?

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Did you mean a response from BSI to the concerns raised by Which?

This is clearly an area that requires a good deal of expertise in setting the limits that sensible domestic smoke alarms can meet in practice. BSI have already responded to Which? and invited them to discuss their concerns. https://www.bsigroup.com/en-GB/about-bsi/media-centre/press-releases/2017/august/BSI-response-to-Which-article-on-smoke-alarms/ I would be interested to compare the expertise that formed the basis of the Which? report with that of the BSI (and other international) committees.

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That is an acknowledgement of the concerns of Which? and certainly not a useful response. Neither organisation has informed us of whether any discussions have taken place. On the basis that there is criticism of products of sale to the general public, I suggest that it is incumbent on BSI to keep us informed.

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It is a constructive response from BSI inviting Which? to discuss their concerns with them. I understand this is being arranged.This could have been done before publication to give BSI the opportunity for input. I don’t know why, when standards are so important, Which? haven’t been more proactive in working directly with BSI in the past.

Which? is effectively doing no more than questioning the range, set by the international standard, within which smoke alarms must sound. The experts involved will need to decide whether closer limits are practical and, if so, what they could be. However the limits are set, some alarms will always sound later than others. Detecting aerosols is not detecting a fire directly, but the likelihood of one developing; the practical upper limit that can be set will no doubt be related to the probability of a developing fire.

Who is the “us” that BSI should keep informed, and how? I would have thought that if Which? do play a proper part in standards development with BSI, they could keep us informed (Which? Members?). I’d hope they would also work with other BEUC members in this, as standards are international, not a national. Whatever is discussed between Which? and BSI will need to go to the international committee.

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Sadly, we don’t know the remit and priorities of Which? but they don’t claim to work on standards development. My observation is that Which? identifies problems and alerts the relevant organisations, BSI in this case.

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If Which? makes a public statement “We don’t think this is good enough“.
on BSI’s comment “‘The standard covers ionisation and optical alarms, and the test fires ensure that whichever type is used, the alarm provides adequate warning when there is a real fire.’ then I’d like to see it supported with properly-researched proposals on how practical improvements can be made. To do this, it would be very sensible to discuss the issue with the experts on the committee at BSI before publication, to see why the standard is framed in the current way. It may be there are good reasons for its present structure, it may be that improvements are being made, or it may be that improvements could be made.

Working with organisations is better than undermining them.

For reference, this is the relevant BSI Committee FSH/12/2:
Expert – CEN/TC 72/WG 12 and ISO/TC 21/SC 3/WG 8 + 24
Expert – CEN/TC 72/WG 12 (EN 54-31)
Fire and Security Association
UK Expert – CEN/TC 72/WG 14
Chief Fire Officers Association
Committee Chair
Committee Secretary
UL International (UK) Ltd
B R E – Building Research Establishment
National Landlords Association
UK Expert – CEN/TC 72/WG 16
F I A – Fire Industry Association
UK Expert – CEN/TC 72/WG 18
Action on Hearing Loss
Convenor CEN/TC 72/WG 10
UK Expert – CEN/TC 72/WG 6
Expert – ISO/TC 21/SC 3/WG 24
Convenor – CEN/TC 72/WG 4 and WG 20
British Fire Consortium

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You have already mentioned that further up the page, Malcolm.

I have little confidence in an organisation that is responsible for standards and makes them available online but not to the general public. I also believe that BSI should be more independent from business and certainly not run as one. This has been my view since before Which? Convo existed.

Let BSI respond properly to the concerns of Which? and in a timely fashion and I will have more confidence in the organisation.

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If Which|? were more proactive with BSI, I’d also be happier. I am hopeful that is now changing.

BSI is a business – it sells testing as well as standards and providing support and consultancy to all kinds of organisations, in both the public and private sector, worldwide.
“About BSI

BSI is the business standards company that helps organizations all over the world make excellence a habit. For more than a century we have been challenging mediocrity and complacency to help embed excellence into the way people and products work. That means showing businesses how to improve performance, reduce risk and achieve sustainable growth. As a global leader in helping organizations improve, our clients range from high profile brands to small, local companies in 182 countries worldwide.”

Which is a business as well, as many commenters have pointed out. And we have to buy its reports; they are not made available to the public.

Simply operating a service that stands on its own feet, rather than receiving public subsidy, is a good thing in my view. Standards are produced internationally by committees who are largely unpaid experts in their field, from my experience. They are prepared with integrity, subject to widespread comment before being issued, and regularly updated. If you have evidence that the international standards organisations – ISO, CEN, CENELEC, and national ones like BSI have behaved dishonestly or have been subjected to and yielded to undue pressure from any particular sector then it would be useful to have that presented for discussion.

Meanwhile, on smoke alarms, a meeting is, I understand, due with BSI and I hope we get told of the outcome.

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I did mention the committee constitution, but it is a long way out of sight. I thought it worth illustrating again its make up to remind us of the apparent expertise available. I do not know what expertise Which? has that resulted in thinking an international standard is “not good enough” but it will have the opportunity for the experts to meet and thrash this out, I hope, in a constructive way.

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I wish Which? was much more open about its work, Malcolm. There is a big difference, however, between BSI, an organisation that (in conjunction with others) is responsible for safety standards, and one, Which?, that is best known for carrying out tests to help us choose washing machines and other household goods.

Information retrieval was an important part of my working life. I find it frustrating not to be able to access documents that are useful to me, having worked in an environment where I could obtain virtually everything I needed.

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“I have little confidence in an organisation that is responsible for standards and makes them available online but not to the general public. ”

Interested members of the public are free to purchase copies of BS standards, in the same way as they can pay to receive Which?

The principle is the same – although the prices may not suit all individuals likings.

Perhaps Which? could lobby for more state funding for BSI and for a national free license for UK residents to also get free copies of ISO standards…

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I have paid for shareware but I’m not rich enough to pay for copies of standards, particularly since they need to be read in conjunction with other standards.

For the benefit of those unaware of the cost of buying copies of British Standards is high – £244 for the document on smoke alarm devices. An increasing number of scientific papers are freely available to the public because journals have moved from subscription to another funding model. That has not put the existing publishers out of business and new ‘open source’ journals have been set up. I don’t believe that more state funding is needed.

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This is old ground that has been well tilled. Standards are international, and all countries charge for them. It helps pay for all the work that goes into preparing them. BSI could not, I believe, unilaterally decide to make them freely available. Would we like the taxpayer to fund access for the few interested people? Many people do not need access to standards, nor have the knowledge to properly use them. There are ways for ordinary people to do so free of charge through some libraries. If local authorities were amenable to funding access for their local residents then this could perhaps be the simplest way to deal with it.

I have suggested before that maybe Which?, assuming it subscribes to the online service, could arrange for nominated interested individuals to have access. Have you pursued this with them?

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There are ways for the public to access standards on line, Derek, if they look hard enough.

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I agree with the frustration at losing access to useful information.

Which? had entered the standards arena by criticising an international standard. That requires substantiation. It is not just “carrying out tests to help us choose.”

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I think the decision could be made for BSI. I doubt that the taxpayer contributes much towards the cost of making scientific articles available, though research council grants include funding for publishing the work they support.

What you are suggesting would not be allowed under the conditions of licensing imposed by BSI. If you visit a library that does provide access to the standards you can print only 10% of an article and may not make a digital copy.

Companies that pay for access to standards pass on costs to their customers, so if I buy a smoke alarm, then I consider that I have already paid for access.

I have looked at various British and ASTM standards and I did not find them complicated – well not compared with molecular biology..

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I cannot make copies either. But reading is OK.

Would you like access to all the machinery, computing, photocopiers, for example in a company who made your smoke alarm? You’ve paid for it (or have you?). Seems a curious argument.

Who pays for university research work on which these scientific articles are based? “It is clear that the income universities in the UK receive for teaching, research and innovation activities comes from a wide range of sources. While less than one fifth of income for teaching comes in the form of direct government grants, 66% of income for research comes from government. In total,only around a quarter of the income that universities receive comes directly from government sources. ” If I’ve read this information correctly it seems reasonable to make the results of research paid for from the public purse available.

Have you talked to Which? about seeing whether you could arrange access to standards? I imagine if they have online access it will be made available to nominated people in the organisation. Maybe if you are a Member, Which? could form you, and other interested parties, into a co-opted group helping Which? technically and therefore justifying access.

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I suggest we get back to discussing smoke alarms and their effectiveness. We are well off-topic.

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The Which? report revolved around the existing standard and that is what I have been commenting on, until the Convo was diverted. Until we hear of the outcome of discussions between Which? and BSI, what should we consider next? It would be useful if Which? could tell us what work they have done to show that, in the 4 fire tests, the envelopes within which domestic smoke alarms should sound can be reduced.

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If you would like to help me, please pass on the BS access information to Lauren and ask her to pass it on to me. I’m fairly sure that I can explain how to make copies.

Member
Patrick Taylor says:
13 September 2017

There seems to be a misunderstanding as to Which?’s capability to engage. For over a decade the testing has been contracted out so there is no inherent expertise within Which? on testing.

I am unable to access the Which? link on tested alarms fully as I can only see the wood fire results of the type of fire. I was left wondering which sort of fire is most common – wood I think being the least likely in most households. The Which? expert tests are not fully explained – compare this to the the Australian testing methodology:

“Our expert testers

CHOICE maintains a highly professional NATA-accredited laboratory and the vast majority of our product testing is done in-house. However some tests, including smoke alarms, demand particular expertise and equipment that we don’t have, so in these cases we engage an accredited external lab to do the testing according to our requirements.
How we choose what we test

With so many to choose from, what makes us choose one smoke alarm to test over another? As with most of our product testing, our aim is to test the most popular brands and types on the market and what you are most likely to see in the shops.

We survey manufacturers to find out about their range of products, we check market sales information and we also check for any member requests to test specific models. From this information we put together a final list that goes to our buyers. They then head out to the retailers and purchase each product, just as a normal consumer would. We do this so we can be sure the products we test are the same as any consumer would find them and not ‘tweaked’ in any way.
How we test

We test a mix of photoelectric, ionisation and dual sensor alarms. These include mains-powered and battery-powered models, including several with 10-year lithium batteries. Our buying guide explains the differences between these types.

The alarms are tested in a special smoke sensitivity chamber, equipped with a measurement ionisation chamber (MIC) to measure the concentration of small particles in the air, and optical sensors to measure the concentration of large particles in the air. Each alarm is subjected to a variety of fire and smoke sources, to determine which models:

are best at detecting real fire situations
are not too sensitive to nuisance smoke and fumes (such as when making toast)
are easy to use and have useful features such as a hush button.

Performance tests

Each alarm is subjected to the following “real fire” test scenarios.

Burning (flaming) wood
Smouldering wood
Burning (flaming) cooking oil
Smouldering polyurethane foam

They are also tested for responsiveness to nuisance smoke sources:

Toasting bread in a toaster
Smouldering oil, as in a frying pan
Cooking a hamburger patty

These nuisance smoke sources can set off a smoke alarm, and the result is often referred to as a “false alarm”. But it’s not really a false alarm, as the smoke alarm has genuinely detected particles from a potential fire. (A real false alarm would be if the alarm went off with no smoke in the air at all; this could be due to dust or an insect getting into the alarm, or an electrical fault.)

No smoke alarm can actually tell the difference between nuisance smoke and a real fire; the challenge is to get the alarm’s sensitivity just right.

The above tests are done with the smoke source contained in a smoke box, and the smoke introduced to the separate smoke sensitivity chamber (containing the alarms and the measuring equipment) via a duct. We also included tests using “proxy” smoke sources placed directly in the smoke sensitivity chamber:

Paraffin oil burner
Incense (or “punk”) stick

All the tested models are certified to the Australian standard for smoke alarms, AS 3786, as required by law. Our test is based on a different set of tests and criteria than the Australian standard; the standard sets a minimum performance requirement for each alarm, but doesn’t rank them on comparative performance. Our test is intended to measure how the tested alarms compare to each other.
Ease of use tests

The lab checks:

the clarity and completeness of the supplied instructions
how easy the alarm is to install
how easy it is to install a new battery.

Test criteria explained

The overall score is made up of:

Performance 80%
Ease of use 20%

Performance is based on the comparative speed of response (i.e. how quickly the alarm responds, compared to the others in the test) under similar smoke levels in a range of test scenarios. For the nuisance alarm score, a high score means the alarm is slow to respond to nuisance sources; for all other scores a high score indicates a fast response.

“Real fire” scenarios 70% (made up of smouldering foam 40%, burning wood 20%, smouldering wood 20%, and burning oil 20%)
Nuisance source score 30% (made up of the scores from the toast, smouldering oil and cooking hamburger patty tests, equally weighted)

The smouldering foam score is weighted more heavily than other “real fire” tests because it’s the best source of large smoke particles and an alarm should be good at detecting this common and dangerous fire scenario. A lot of modern furniture (including sofas and mattresses) contains polyurethane foam or similar material and this material can smoulder for a long time, producing a lot of toxic smoke before it finally bursts into flames.

We don’t factor the proxy sources in the score as they give very similar results to the “real fire” tests and are mainly performed as a sense check.

Ease of use is based on the ease of installing the battery and the alarm, and the supplied instructions, weighted equally.”

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As I have reluctantly said before, I do not want to prejudice what might be a fragile link to BS Online. I don’t normally need to make copies, but if necessary I have found a way to print and to select extracts.

Have you asked Lauren about accessing through which? I don’t think we’ve ever had a definitive response as to whether, for appropriate Members, they could provide access. It does seem a legitimate aid to Convos. Although in the past Which? have not been forthcoming about the content of standards when it seemed relevant to progressing a Convo.

@ldeitz I assume you do have access to BS Online?

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The four standard fire tests are those in the BSEN, and I believe are those used by Which? I presume Which? use appropriate facilities and appropriate staff to test alarms to the BSEN standard. I wondered who understood the topic well enough to make the comments about the “inadequacy” of the international standard and assume Which? employ or consult appropriate experts to reach this conclusion. Resolving this is what I hope Which? and BSI will do when they meet.

If, Patrick, you believe Which? do not have the expertise to “engage” with experts when discussing test results then I would be extremely concerned about the value of some of their comments. However, I would hope that even if they lack in-house expertise, they consult external experts and, hopefully, ask the right questions. They have a responsibility to provide accurate information and comment, both to their Members and to the manufacturers of products they test.

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Patrick wrote:

There seems to be a misunderstanding as to Which?’s capability to engage. For over a decade the testing has been contracted out so there is no inherent expertise within Which? on testing.

I don’t believe that Which? claims to do advanced testing or to have staff with the expertise that some of us would like. Many organisations employ independent test labs and these should be able to provide expert comment.

I am unable to access the Which? link on tested alarms fully as I can only see the wood fire results of the type of fire. I was left wondering which sort of fire is most common – wood I think being the least likely in most households.

I’m not sure where you are looking but I’m sure there is plenty of wood in most homes.

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It is not in the least bit surprising that the government pours money into research, you only have to look at the US figures that the Defence Dept. /CIA/FBI pour in 100,s of millions 0f $$$$. This country does the same but more quietly I get info from US “controversial ” websites about it , when checked out it isn’t denied just hidden very well from the casual browser on the web. As a matter vof fact why haven’t any of you checked up on the large amounts of US cash “invested ” in research in this country that helps the US Defense Industry ? BT , my ISP worked in conjunction with both governments to install hidden malware used for detection it was made available from BT,s own “research labs ” . You mention “controlled access ” well my ISP is censoring my investigative research so much so that that its patently obvious to me . I now use a German browser to get results I want and if BT don’t watch out I will change my DNS settings as to me , freedom is everything . I will post some unusual things happening to me in the Lobby .

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Just get a VPN, Duncan.

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Thats good advice Ian. Getting a good one isn’t that easy though “free ” ones come at a price .