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Understanding and Reporting Smoke Detectors & Carbon Monoxide Alarms in North Carolina

By: Scott Hinson and Dave Hahn Scott HinsonDave Hahn

The standards of practice reference the need to inspect smoke detectors and (since September 1, 2013) permanently installed carbon monoxide alarms under the Electrical section .1110 (a)(8). The standards further clarify under .1110 (d) that “The home inspector shall report in writing on the presence or absence of smoke detectors, and permanently installed carbon monoxide alarms in any homes with fuel fired appliances or attached garages, and operate their test function, if accessible, except when detectors are part of a central system.”

So while we are required to inspect smoke detectors, we are only required to inspect “permanently installed” carbon monoxide alarms. This means that we are not required to inspect the plug-in type, although you may choose to do so. Per the SOP, “inspect” means the act of making a visual examination.

We are to report on the presence or absence of smoke detectors. But we are only required to report on the presence or absence of permanently installed carbon monoxide (CO) alarms in homes with fuel-fired appliances (e.g., gas furnace, gas water heater, gas logs, etc.) or attached garages.

CO alarms are one of the easier items that we can inspect and are probably one of the most important components of the inspection process. CO problems in homes are reported mostly in the newspaper or TV as cases of severe sicknesses and/or death. We are in a unique position to determine whether these alarms are in place and working (at the time of inspection). To avoid confusion or omissions, you may choose to report their presence or absence in any type of home, whether a fuel-fired appliance or attached garage is present or not since some sources of CO are from charcoal grills being used inside as well as propane appliances not rated for inside use. This $50.00 device may save a life. Note: In some areas of the state, homes used as a rental units or condominiums attached are required to have CO alarms and smoke detectors in place. Also note: The current code in North Carolina (Section R315 of the 2012 NCRC) does not require permanently installed CO alarms, but allows for battery powered, plug-in or hard-wired alarms.

We are also to operate the test function of these devices, if accessible, except when detectors are part of a central system. Per the SOP, “operate” means to cause systems or equipment to function. Also per the SOP, “readily accessible” means approachable or enterable for visual inspection without the risk of damage to any property or alteration of the accessible space, equipment, or opening. Note: There is nothing there about the use of a four-foot stepladder (that only applies for readily openable access panels).

Determining whether the detectors/alarms are actively connected to a central alarm or monitored system is important so as to prevent the fire/police department from being summoned during your inspection. It’s not always easy to tell which detectors/alarms are connected to a security system, or if the system is activated. When in doubt, you should inquire with the seller and/or their agent to prevent a false-alarm charge for this test which can run up to $100 in some areas. If it is determined (or suspected) that the detectors/alarms are tied to an activated system and therefore not tested, this should be listed in your report. And while we are not required to test security alarm systems, it may be helpful to direct your client’s to review/test this equipment with the sellers prior to closing to determine that these items work.

Operation of the test function (if accessible, or when not part of a central system) can be performed by pressing the test button and noting whether each alarm is audible as individually tested and/or if all alarms sound at the same time (i.e., are interconnected), as may be applicable. Remember, when reporting functionality, while we are inspecting smoke “detectors,” only the “alarm” function is actually tested and not the “smoke detection” capability of any unit. On new construction, you would want to report if the debris covers have not been removed or the battery-activation strip has not been removed. Reporting that one or more detectors or alarms make a chirping sound is indicative of dying batteries which may be silent (and non-functional) by the time the client moves in.

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) requires all single-station and multiple-station smoke alarms to be replaced every ten years (NFPA 72 Section 8-3.5). This is because build-up of grease and dust, insect infestations, and normal failure rates dictate replacement. If you see some heavily discolored units, they are likely over ten years of age and you may want to recommend an upgrade to replace these units. Note: The current code requirements for smoke alarms (they don’t call them “detectors”) in North Carolina can be found under Section R314 of the 2012 NCRC.

CO detectors begin to lose sensitivity after five (5) years, so you may want to recommend an upgrade to replace units older than this. Beginning in March 2007, UL 2034 required that all CO alarms have an audible “end of life” warning. The end of life warning alerts you that the unit has reached its expiration and should be replaced. Some manufacturers have voluntarily included this warning on their products since 2001, but any CO alarm manufactured after April 2007 with a UL listing must include an end of life warning.