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Chapter 4 Introduction

In modern times the role and need for easily installable, cheap fire or smoke detectors can be used to save lives and injuries and much damage to properties, since they can generate a warning in case of a fire or a fire in the making. Recently, all future houses being developed are being installed with such devices due to their potential capability of being a life saver. A number of relatively cheap and inexpensive fire/smoke detectors are available in the market and in order to select effectively, it is necessary to understand the basic concepts behind the operation of these devices and also the nature and characteristics of the fires.

Detection of heat and smoke

There are four stages through which a fire develops. In the very earliest or incipient stage the tiny particles are released through thermal decomposition. These particles are invisible to the human eye. The second stage is known as the smouldering stage, in which there is visible smoke due to the increase in combustion which in turn increases the size as well as the output of particles. The third stage which is also known as the flame stage comprises of enough heat that can generate a spark or flame which can be used to ignite the particles and the gas molecules released in stage two. The extreme amount of heat can produce the spark or flame which can lead to the fourth and final stage. This stage is the high heat stage which causes the most damage to the property due to the great amount of heat and expansion of flames. Due to the nature of the different characteristics mentioned in the four stages of fire production, the smoke detector therefore operates (or sounds an alarm) usually much faster than its counterpart, which is the heat detector. The smoke detector is therefore more reliable and can be used to provide an added level of protection by sounding an alarm sooner and at a much earlier stage , whenever there is a fire build-up and give more time and opportunity for the people to escape or retaliate/control the situation.

Basic Operation of Smoke detectors

The smoke detectors available in the market of three principles: 1. Ionization principle 2. Photoelectric principle or 3. Combination of Ionization and photoelectric principles.

Photoelectric Detectors
The Photoelectric smoke detectors work upon the principle that deals with the scattering of light energy. A beam of light (e.g. LED) travels across to a light tight chamber and then is collected at a light trap or collector on the other side. As long as the air inside the container of the chamber is clean, the photocell would not sense any light, since the output level of the

light at the side of the light beam is not high enough to cause a change in the photocell resistance. Once the smoke does enter the chamber, the light from the beam is scattered due to the presence of the smoke particles and this disperses the light into all directions. Some light, however, manages to reach the photocell and the overall change in the resistance of the photocell would initiate the alarm to be turned on. The working principle of such a smoke detector is displayed in the picture displayed as follows.

Shows a photocell type of smoke detector which depends on the operation of light scattering due to the smoke particles entering a light tight chamber.

Ionization detectors
Ionization detectors on the other hand operate upon the principle that a small electric current can be carried through the ionized air. An energy source is used to ionize the air molecules inside the sensing chamber. When a voltage is applied across the two ends of the chamber, it causes a small flow of electric current through the ionized air. In case of the smoke entering the chamber, some of the ions present inside it, attach themselves to the smoke particles instead of the air molecules. These ionized smoke molecules or particles are much bulkier in size and proportion and therefore have slower rate of movement from one end towards another end of the chamber. As a result the smoke in the chamber decreases the flow of ions and consequently the flow of current decrease. An alarm is sounded by the electric circuit which detects the drop in the current and turns the alarm on.

Shows an ionization type of smoke detector where the current flow of ionized air is decreased due to the presence of smoke particles inside the sensing chamber

Dual Chamber Detector

A dual chamber detector uses two chambers of ionization and it is shown below, where one is the sensing chamber which works due to change in the particle matters, humidity and atmospheric pressure. The other chamber is the reference chamber, which is usually partially closed from outside air and is influenced only by humidity and pressure of the atmosphere because of the tiny openings blocking the entry of later particulate matter which includes particles of combustion. The electronic circuitry is used to monitor both chambers and compares the outputs generated by both. The change in humidity or atmospheric pressure can affect the outputs of both chambers since they are affected equally and cancel each other. When the particles of combustion enter the sensing chamber, its current decreases, whereas the current of reference chamber remains unchanged. The resulting current imbalance is detected by the electronic circuitry.

Pattern of Particle radiation

Distribution of Ions

Distribution of ions and particles

Dual chamber

Dual chamber with combustion particles

Comparision of the specification of a general purpose smoke detector

Smoke Detector Selection

In case of residential or household level smoke detectors, either type of detector can be used for detecting the fire with an early warning smoke alarm system. When it comes to selecting the best model for the purpose of smoke detection the Ionization detectors are faster for the purpose of detecting fires with flames, whereas, the photoelectric counterpart can be better used to detect smouldering fires. This is because smoke is composed of particles and some particles fall within the range of ionization detectors and others within the range of photoelectric detectors. And if we need a really specific form of detector we combine the two detector types to construct it for specific fumes/gasses.

Light obscuration detector It is evaluated that the characteristics of an ionization detector make it more suitable for the detection of fires which have a fast flame and therefore the range of particles which can be detected lies between 0.01 to 0.4 micron sizes. Photoelectric smoke detectors however are more suited for the detection of slow smouldering fires which are evaluated to have the particulates within the range of 0.4 to 10.0 micron. This means that each detector can be used for both types of fires, but the real major difference would exist in their respective response times, which innately will depend on the nature of the fire itself.

Situations for Other types of detectors

In particular circumstances where the standard smoke detectors are unsuitable, special purpose detectors, such as flame detectors, head and other devices for the purpose of detection can be used.

Limitations of smoke detectors

Even though smoke detectors are used for the purpose of providing earliest possible fire warnings, and have saved thousands of lives, we must consider their limitations. They might not provide early warnings of fires, which might be on another level of the building, therefore we need to ensure that detectors are placed at every level of the building.

Mode of combustion
Flaming combustion Flaming combustion usually creates smaller mean size of particles as compared to non flaming combustion. This is primarily because of the better and more efficient conversion of high molecular weight polymers to lower molecular weight combustion products and therefore eventually CO, CO2 and H20 in place of organic by-products and soot. Non-Flaming Combustion This form of combustion generates larger volumes of smoke particles for a specific amount of mass, as compared to the flaming combustion.

Smoke detector design considerations

Smoke detectors are based on simple criterions, however, some considerations must be observed. The detector is supposed to produce an alarm whenever it detects smoke, but it should minimize the impact of an unwanted signal which can be generated due to variety of reasons. Light can be reflected from insects, dirt and other contamination and this can accumulate to give a difference in reading inside the sensing chamber. Similarly, transients in electrical and radiated energy can affect the circuitry of both ionization and photoelectric smoke detectors and therefore can be interpreted by the circuitry of the smoke detector as smoke itself therefore resulting in unwanted alarms. Detector performance therefore needs to be verified after careful fire tests and all smoke alarms must respond to the same test fires regardless of the choice chosen as a principle of operation.

Placement of detectors
Smoke tests offer best help in regards to choosing the placement of the smoke detector. The general consideration is that when only one detector is placed then it should be placed to the centre of the ceiling as possible or mounting it from the wall 12 inches from the ceiling. The guidelines for the purpose of selection of placing detectors are defined in NFPA 72-2010.

Placement of wall mounted detector

Top fire scenarios ranked by frequency of occurrence [1992 1996 NFIRS Data]

Note: All references to be taken from Project Sensor file.