Changes to UL Standards for Smoke Alarms and Smoke Detectors

UL is making changes to the tests required for listing of smoke alarms and smoke detectors.  In April, I sat down with Todd Alford, Director of Product Marketing and Strategy at Honeywell, who explained what these upcoming changes mean for the industry.

What are the upcoming changes to UL standards for smoke alarms and smoke detectors?

Todd:  Starting in 2019, new tests that will be required for listing of devices to the UL 217 standard for smoke alarms and UL 268 standard for smoke detectors.

The new tests fall into one of two categories.  The first is the addition of both a smoldering and a flaming polyurethane foam test.  The second is the addition of a cooking nuisance resistance test.

Why are these tests necessary?  Don’t smoke alarms and detectors provide adequate fire detection? 

Todd: Generally, the answer to that second question is yes.  But let me tackle the polyurethane foam tests first.   The reason relates to the nature of building materials and furnishings and how they have changed over the decades.  If we look at the materials used in the 1970’s and prior, they were natural materials such as wool, cotton, silk, and wood.  But in the last 20 years, we have seen a significant shift to engineered materials and synthetics – and polyurethane foam is a very common example.  And the reason this matters is because it impacts the amount of time occupants have to escape a fire.  These materials have been shown in numerous tests to burn much hotter and faster.  As a result, escape times have gone from around 17 minutes to as little as 3 minutes.   Therefore, greater sensitivity to the smoke characteristics of these kinds of fires is critical.

On the other hand, nuisance alarms (or false positives) are also being considered.  I think we can all relate to having our smoke alarms activate when frying bacon or leaving that bread in the toaster a little too long.  In response, the NFPA (National Fire Protection Association) added a new requirement in the 2013 edition of NFPA72 that requires all smoke alarms and detectors installed between 6 and 20 feet of a stationary cooking appliance (for example, your stove/oven/cooktop) to be listed for resistance to normal cooking activities.  In response to this change, the UL standards added a new cooking nuisance smoke test.  This was updated in the 2016 edition of the NFPA standard and will be further clarified when the 2019 edition is released.  The bottom line is that come May 2020, all UL listed smoke detectors and alarms must satisfy both the PU foam and Nuisance tests – which combined, present a significant challenge to create a compliant product.  These test standards and the facility to qualify products only became available earlier this year.

What do these new standards mean for the industry?

Todd: These changes will impact all residential and commercial smoke detectors and alarms…meaning any manufacturer who wants to be able to offer a UL listed smoke detector or alarm will need to have their products tested and approved to meet these new tests.  In most cases, the changes we and other manufacturers make to our products will be hard for consumers to see, but the internal changes can be significant.  These are very challenging tests and they are in addition to the existing UL standard fire tests, not replacements.

Are there any devices available now that meet the new standards?

Todd:  Currently, there are no smoke alarms or detectors that satisfy these new tests.  But, Honeywell is committed to meeting these new standards well ahead of the enforcement date and the new generation of devices that we are bringing to market.  We will be working with UL to submit these products for qualification and we’ll be sure to communicate our success as soon as we are complete.