The Quest for Smoke Detection Perfection

An effort to reduce nuisance alarms and better detect smoldering fires has led to the development of a new type of algorithm-assisted alarm. Learn how the device differs from standard photoelectric and ionization devices and how it might advance life-safety measures.
Published: January 3, 2013

The controversy over which smoke detection technology is superior — photoelectric or ionization — has been debated for decades. Fire chiefs, manufacturers, fire protection engineers, lawyers and various other industry pundits have all weighed in on the advantages and disadvantages of each technology.

All this deliberation has led to confusion in the marketplace, as well as litigation in courts across the nation. Yet the official wisdom still maintains that it is best to use both types of smoke detectors in a residential setting, according to such organizations as the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), among others.

Major industry constituents have sought a solution to this dilemma. Photoelectric detector engineers have been seeking ways to detect smaller particles while ionization detector engineers are trying to detect larger particles. Neither has been modestly successful.

Now a new technology exists that can end the controversy, and there is a UL-Listed product to prove it. Enter the IoPhic detector, a device based on using microprocessors and a new algorithm that allows smoldering fires to be deducted quicker than other technologies while being less sensitive to cooking and steam. This technology doesn’t detect smaller particles optically, nor does it use ion chambers to detect larger particles.

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Let’s delve into some of the essential functions that make this technology capable of improving fire/life-safety endeavors. A historical overview of smoke and fire detection development is also presented to lend some perspective of this new technology’s place among manufacturing advances.

Microprocessor Enhances Detector’s Potential

Smoke detectors engineered with microprocessors and algorithms have been utilized in the fire/life-safety industry for quite some time. These devices have been used in conjunction with control panels in the commercial market. The earliest uses covered functions such as addressing. The ability to ignore transient blips was a subsequent addition, followed by signal smoothing.

In further advances, microprocessors were used to digitally monitor sensitivities; eventually the sensitivities were able to be changed dynamically from the control panels. This permitted the detectors to be set slightly more sensitive at times, but did nothing to shift the spectrum of detectable fires more quickly for either photoelectric or ionization detectors.

Most manufacturers have been concentrating on making improvements to their sensors in order to expand the range of detectable types of fire more quickly, albeit without much success. These efforts have also chiefly focused on eliminating nuisance and false alarms.

Thankfully, the advance of technology marches on. IoPhic alarms feature Universal Sensing Technology, a registered trademark of Owings Mills, Md.-based Universal Security Instruments Inc. Built with a patented algorithm, the IoPhic alarm provides temperature and humidity compensation, auto-sensitivity calibration, among other features.

The technology protects against both fast flaming and slow smoldering fires with a single sensor, thereby lessening the cost as compared to most dual sensor alarms and standalone photoelectric alarms. More manufacturers are expected to soon adopt and deploy this technology.

Tests show an IoPhic-based detector is 87% faster in responding to smoldering fires, according to UL 217 Smoldering Smoke Test, project #09CA38078. 

In addition to superior smoke detection capability, the IoPhic technology has been tested and found to be less false-alarm prone compared to traditional devices. Consider these findings from the “Analysis of the Response of Smoke Detectors to Smoldering Fires and Nuisance Sources,” a study released in January 2012 by the Department of Fire Protection Engineering at the University of Maryland: “ … IoPhic-based smoke alarms are observed to have nominally equivalent nuisance alarm immunity to photoelectric smoke alarms in kitchen scenarios, and are more resistant to nuisance sources near bathrooms than photoelectric smoke alarms. They are more resistant to nuisance alarms than all other smoke alarms utilizing an ionization sensor.”

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