Reinventing commercial fire detection

Protecting life, property, and reputation is now much easier for commercial facilities ranging from hospitals, universities and indoor football practice fields to museums, cultural heritage sites, airport terminals, metro-rail tunnels/stations, and prisons as advanced aspirating smoke detector technology becomes widely available. 

The technology, which draws in air samples through flexible tubing to a central testing location, has been used for decades in sensitive applications such as cleanrooms and data centers where early smoke detection is critical.

Compared to traditional spot smoke detectors, this approach dramatically improves commercial facility safety by detecting smoke at the earliest possible stage. It also significantly improves aesthetics with small, concealable sampling points, while reducing false alarms and even maintenance.

As an example, one system, called the VESDA-E VEA, by Xtralis, a global provider of aspirating fire detection equipment, draws air through small, unobtrusive sample point in each room. The air is analyzed using sophisticated laser-based technology at the central unit to identify the presence of minute smoke particles in a continuous process.

This approach offers earlier detection than even photoelectric technology detectors. The system is able to detect minor particles in the air much faster, even before a fire begins to flame and burn. In many cases, early warnings can speed evacuation and prevent fire spreading to other areas.

As a multi-channel, addressable system, the VEA central unit can also pinpoint the exact location of the alarm. The use of multiple levels of alarm, set at specified concentrations of smoke, can also ensure time to investigate the alarms and make decisions. This facilitates safe evacuation and reduces the risk of unwanted sprinkler or suppression system release.

Unlike unsightly traditional smoke detectors up to 7 inches in diameter, the VEA’s sampling points are about the size of a quarter, and can be concealed behind ventilation covers or within fixtures, making them inconspicuous to facility occupants and visitors.

The aspirating approach is also much easier to maintain. Unlike traditional spot detectors which must be tested individually, and can be compromised by accumulation of dust and dirt, aspirating systems can self-clean and detect any blockages or breaks in the tubing. Such systems not only stop false alarms due to dust or dirt contamination of sensors, but also can distinguish between smoke, fire, and other airborne contaminants, which further reduces nuisance alarms.

Mandated annual National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) inspections are also simplified. Unlike traditional smoke alarms, systems like the VEA do not require testing of each detector by introducing smoke directly into the chamber. Instead, the tests can be conducted at the central unit.

A host of commercial facility applications
While traditional spot smoke detectors have been common in commercial applications, a growing number of such facilities are successfully turning to aspirating detectors for a variety of reasons.

Hospitals & healthcare
While spot smoke detectors are relatively easy to install, NFPA regulations mandate annual inspection and testing of each unit, which can be disruptive to patients, doctors, nurses and hospital personnel in a hospital and healthcare environment. This tedious, time-consuming process requires a fire alarm contractor to enter each room, introduce smoke directly into the detector and verify that it functions properly.

For Jeremy Robison, Facilities Director/Safety Officer at Sonora Behavioral Health of Tucson, AZ, the annual inspections required significant planning. “For our patients, anything out of the ordinary, such as loud noises, can set them off,” Robison explains.

In compliance with NFPA 72 Chapter 14 requirements, systems like VEA do not require the contractor to enter each room, which made Robison’s job easier. Instead, servicing and testing can be performed at the central unit and only takes a few seconds per sample point. In this way, the fire alarm contractor can complete the inspection at any time without having to move patients or access restricted areas.

By some estimates, this can greatly reduce maintenance and inspection costs and reduce the total cost of ownership of the fire alarm system by up to 60 percent.

Museums & historical structures
To preserve the aesthetics of historic buildings like palaces and castles, while protecting lives and precious artifacts from fire, it is important to avoid the intrusion of bulky, traditional smoke detectors in every room.

With this in mind, the Waterhouse Building in London, one of Britain’s most striking examples of Romanesque architecture and home to one of the most important natural history collections in the world, turned to aspirating technology. The small discreet detectors, in fact, can be hid behind light fittings, blended in with ceiling paintings, or form part of ceiling sculptures to provide virtually “invisible” smoke detection.

“As one of the UK’s most popular museums, the Natural History Museum has a responsibility to ensure the safety of visitors and staff,” says Kevin Rellis, Head of Estates Projects. “Protecting against the risk of fire is key, and with VESDA we have ensured that we have the best possible coverage to safeguard the museum for generations to come.”

Other heritage sites which rely on Xtralis include Hearst Castle in California; Finland National Art Gallery; Winchester Cathedral, St. James Palace, and House of Lords in England.

Ultra-modern facilities
At the other end of the spectrum, sleek modern facilities often feature minimalist architecture where bulky spot smoke detectors look strikingly out of place. As such, there is a premium on making smoke detection blend in with the surroundings instead of clash with it.

A high-profile project for a new state of the art sports performance center at a prominent Pac 12 university required a smoke detector that was less obvious, even concealable, says Bob Pritchard of Convergint Technologies, a company that designs, installs and services integrated building systems including electronic security, fire alarm and life safety systems.

“The designers and the architects responsible for this remodel didn’t want to see any safety devices sticking out of the ceilings,” Pritchard says. “It was very important for them to see as minimal impact as possible.”

Such aspirating systems are also being utilized nationally at universities for a sleek look and high performance smoke detection, including at Clemson University’s state-of-the-art
Allen N. Reeves Football Complex in South Carolina, constructed for its 2016 NCAA championship football team.

Protecting the commercial facility bottom line
Some managers of commercial facilities may be prone to use spot smoke detectors because of their familiarity with such traditional systems.

But those who take advantage of the superior capabilities of aspirating detection systems will not only protect lives, property, and reputation to a degree not previously possible in commercial settings, but also prevent serious liability and litigation in worst case scenarios.

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