CO is newest component of fire system, look for more

Friday, December 1, 2006

Simplex Grinnell at ASIS this year introduced a carbon monoxide (CO) detector that may be added to a standard fire system. Manufacturers say this kind of offering is just the first of many CO detectors and combined CO/fire detectors that will be introduced over the next few years to serve what they expect to be a booming market segment.
"We really view this as a burgeoning market, very much like the smoke detector market was during the late '70s or early '80s," said Richard Roberts, product manager, security business unit for System Sensor. "It's just getting off the ground. Given another five to 10 years, we fully expect that it will be right up there with smoke detection."
The system-connected CO market is in its infancy, but is poised for significant growth, Roberts said. "The market has grown an average of 30 percent year over year for the past several years and we expect that strong growth to continue."
The benefit of having the CO detector connected to a fire alarm system is constant supervision; if it's connected to the fire panel it will trigger the notification appliance of the fire system. Another layer of safety is provided if it's monitored by a central station.
SimplexGrinnell's new product actually uses technology developed by System Sensor, though the company is developing its own CO sensors in its European operation, said John Haynes, director of marketing at SimplexGrinnell.
"We're looking, as a number of fire alarm companies are, at integrating CO sensing with actual fire detection, as opposed to just sensing it as a hazardous gas. Ultimately they'll be detecting both," Haynes said.
CO sensors, he said, have the added bonus of detecting fires at an early stage. "Typically if you have a fire starting you do see a rapid build-up of carbon monoxide. So it can help when you combine it with other technologies such as photo-electric sensing [which is the primary method used today for fire detection]," Haynes explained. "It can help reduce false alarms and give you earlier detection, potentially, of a fire."
This kind of technology got its start in Europe, where companies like Bosch and SimplexGrinnell already have products in the field.
In the next 12 to 18 months, SimplexGrinnell will likely launch a new product in North America for its commercial fire alarm systems, capable of detecting CO and fire.
How might a combined CO/fire detector operate compared to a basic fire alarm system? Nick Martello, marketing director for FireLite, said the design may be altered in simple ways, for example there may be "different colored strobe lights ... or horns may use a different audible temporal pattern to differentiate a CO alarm from a fire alarm."
Legislation is driving the growing demand for CO detection. In the wake of several high-profile tragedies where people died because of carbon monoxide--which is colorless, odorless and tasteless--leaking into their homes, 12 states have adopted laws requiring CO detectors in homes and some commercial facilities such as childcare centers, nursing homes, hotels and college dormitories.
Manufacturers expect CO detectors to be more widely used in commercial applications in the future. There is wide disparity among different states' CO legislation. In response, the National Electrical Manufacturers Association is working on model legislation so states that are amending legislation or adopting it for the first time can see what the industry feels is needed.
Wayne Moore, a principal at Hughes Associates, a fire protection engineering and code consultancy, concurs that the market for CO detection is growing, but he notes that in certain applications, CO detectors work perfectly well independent of a fire system. He cites, for example, CO detectors in parking garages. For years, they've been used to trigger fans once the CO level reaches certain levels. Some might argue that "it should be connected to a fire system, but they don't do it now and they may not need to."
Moore, who has been heavily involved on many National Fire Protection Association committees, notes that the CO codes still need some work.
Lee Richardson, NFPA senior electrical engineer, said that concerns have been raised about the need to correlate signaling requirements for systems that integrate CO and fire detection. "Other concerns have been raised about the testing needs of CO detectors and placement requirements, particularly in occupancies other than dwelling units," he said.
The NFPA will soon begin work on the next edition of NFPA 720, the code governing CO detection, and plans to expand the scope of the code beyond dwelling units to commercial applications, Richardson said. SimplexGrinnell's John Haynes said adding CO detection to fire systems is an example of another trend: a broader definition of life safety.
"The way we see the market going is more and more functions like this being incorporated into what today is the fire alarm system, but is really a life-safety system that's capable of detecting and alerting people not just of a fire, but potentially of other hazardous conditions [and security-related concerns] inside or outside of buildings," Haynes said.
Haynes believes we'll see more integration of mass notification and newer technologies like axonX's fire video analytics. All integrated into a fire system? "Absolutely," Haynes said.