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Beware Fire Alarm/Detector Maintenance

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Sadly, landlords are once again at the end of the chain and pick up the workload, costs and risks associated with something as simple as a ceiling mounted smoke detector.  

What is the issue


As a landlord, it is a given that you want your tenants to be safe in their homes. You do many things to ensure that is the case including providing and maintaining smoke and fire detectors, alarms, etc.

A simple smoke detector typically has an optical sensor which constantly assesses the amount of dust or other particles passing through its beam and sounds the alarm if a pre-determined level is reached. This will happen when the room starts to fill with smoke, but also when decorating for example – which is why it is always advised to fit a dust cover when such works occur.

To keep everyone safe, it is worth periodically using the 'test' button to ensure that the alarm sounds properly and, if interlinked, the other alarms sound also.

In addition, it is worth running a vacuum cleaner head with a brush attachment over the device (at least once a year but as often as needed) to avoid the build up of dust which could set off the alarm unnecessarily.

So, we are all agreed, we need to test and maintain these devices.

The issue arises in different organisations interpretation of the frequency of testing needed and also, the definition of 'maintenance'. 

Frequency of Testing

 A grade D alarm system (just detectors on the ceiling but no main panel) requires less frequent testing than a grade A system (one with an alarm panel). The requirements for a Grade A panel are pretty onerous and basically stipulate weekly testing – whether you do it yourself or rely on the tenant is open to debate, but we will not dwell on the Grade A solutions here.


Obviously, your fire risk assessment will define the appropriate frequency and level of any testing based on the occupancy, layout of the property, alarm type and the like. However, in Portsmouth HMOs there is an extra level of very specific requirements based on their interpretation of the various rules and guidelines in this area.

For example, the LACORS guidance on testing of Grade D & E systems states, "these systems should be tested every month by use of the test button on the smoke alarm." (32.5) but the next section (32.6) goes on to state, "It is recognised that the above arrangements represent the ideal. While they may be possible in buildings with a resident landlord or a dedicated caretaker or housekeeper, in most situations for premises covered by this guide such arrangements may be impracticable. Where this proves to be the case tenants should be given clear instructions on how to test grade D or E alarms within their dwelling using the test button, along with clear recording and reporting instructions for any faults or false alarms on the system." This latter clarification is often ignored as it is easier to operate a bureaucracy where everyone does everything the same way than not.

Obviously, your FRA and your current tenants will define what is most appropriate for that specific property, but our recommendation is NOT to schedule monthly tests / inspections as no one can feel 'at home' in a property which is constantly being 'inspected' – where you do need to go in more frequently, we would recommend that you call it a 'maintenance' visit to check all of the facilities are operating rather than have the tenant feel obliged to dedicate 2 days of cleaning and tidying ahead of you inspecting how they live.

Maintenance

One would hope that maintaining a smoke head or detector or a heat one in a kitchen would be simple, just ensure that its batteries are working, the sensor is in date, a periodic light vacuum to ensure it is clean and a regular test.

The guidance we have from PCC states, "Maintenance of Grade D alarms would include things such as periodic cleaning, vacuuming, or changing battery backups where the system has a user replaceable battery - all things that we expect to be carried out, in addition to routine testing.

This is aligned with The Management of Houses in Multiple Occupation (England) Regulations 2006 which states "The manager must ensure that any fire fighting equipment and fire alarms are maintained in good working order."

A competent contractor may not be required to carry out the above activities which is why we accept either the declaration confirming that the licence holder has maintained the system or a certificate from a competent person. "

When we questioned the definition of maintenance, we were told, "we cannot accept any deviation from the manufacturer's instructions"

And this is where the issue arises – as some manufacturers suggest regular testing and periodic light vacuum which is fine but others talk about smoke tests or heat tests to confirm proper operation of the sensor which is beyond the capability of the typical landlord. Most manufacturers used to have wording of this form in their documentation but fortunately, few still do – but it is imperative for you as a landlord to know which form of documentation your alarm system comes with.

Having spoken to several manufacturers, several of their employees were open that these phrases about the need for smoke or heat tests were added to the documentation to reduce the risk of future litigation against the company if the alarms failed in a future property fire, one went so far as to say that smoke testing was just as likely to damage the sensor as it was to prove it was working.

So some manufacturers reduce their risk of litigation by specifying unnecessary checks, PCC reduce their risk of any future blame by enforcing whatever the manufacturer states and you, dear landlord, end up with all of the risk and the additional cost and workload. 

The Detail Guidelines (BS5839-6)

PDPLA Committee Member, Simon Fletcher has a cheat sheet extracted from (and copyright of the BSI)  to help with his properties - red applies where he has Grade A systems and yellow highlights for his 2-storey small HMOs.

Our Advice

When buying or replacing smoke or heat alarms or sensors, read the paperwork and ensure the maintenance requirements are not onerous and fit with the way you wish to manage the property. Saving £20 on a device but then having to spend 10x that getting them professionally maintained each year is not good business.  

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