All Spaced Out: How far apart should you place heat and smoke detectors?

shutterstock / PlutusART
Shutterstock / PlutusART
Published On
Jul 15, 2022

Spacing heat or smoke detectors can be quite confusing. Many factors must be considered, such as the ceiling type where you plan to install them (flat, smooth ceilings; joisted or beamed ceilings; sloping or shed ceilings), ceiling configuration and height, configuration of the contents of the space, ambient temperature, compartment ventilation and whether the area has high air velocity.

NFPA 72 provides the necessary information to properly install heat or smoke detectors. Remember that the requirement to install detectors is determined by the building, fire and life safety codes. NFPA 72 only tells us how to properly install (and test) them. Knowing this information will make the job easier.

Heat detectors have a few different spacing requirements than smoke detectors, although most are the same. Heat detectors have a listed spacing, while smoke detectors only have a “nominal” spacing. On smooth ceilings, you have two choices: the half spacing method or the 0.7 method.

I recommend drawing the area of coverage based on the listed or nominal spacing when preparing shop drawings. This makes it easier for the plan review to verify the correct number and detector locations. It also makes it easier for the installer to locate them properly. If you use AutoCAD or a similar program, put the coverage area circles on a separate layer that can be turned on or off. This cuts down on cluttering the drawings.

With the half spacing method, the first detector must be located within one-half the listed or nominal spacing from a side wall, then up to full spacing between detectors. Using the reflected ceiling plan helps ensure you don’t locate a detector on a light fixture, sprinkler head or air vent.

The 0.7 method requires that all points on the ceiling are within 0.7 times the listed or nominal spacing. Annex A in 17.7.3.2.3.1 states, “For the purposes of this section, ‘nominal 30 ft (9.1 m)’ should be determined to be 30 ft (9.1 m) plus or minus 5 percent [plus or minus 18 in. (460 mm)].”

This is very useful information when the spacing distance is slightly more than allowed by one of the two methods. It can save you from having to add more detectors.

Ceilings

If you have a beamed or joisted ceiling, reduce the spacing perpendicular to the beam or joist to compensate for the effect the beam or joist will have on the smoke flow. What is the difference between a beamed ceiling and joisted ceiling? NFPA 72 defines these under Ceiling Surfaces in Chapter 3. Both types are solid barriers extending more than 4 inches deep from the ceiling. A joisted ceiling has a spacing of 3 feet or less between joists measured center to center. A beamed ceiling has a spacing of more than 3 feet between beams measured center to center. You will reduce the spacing perpendicular to the beams by half the listed or nominal spacing for joists and a third the listed or nominal spacing for beams.

For sloping ceilings, always start at the peak and work toward the sidewalls. The first detector must be installed on the ceiling within 3 feet of the centerline of the peak. Then from the centerline, measure horizontally (not down the slope) to determine the next detector’s location. You continue this until the last detector is within half the listed or nominal spacing. (See Figure A.17.6.3.4(a) in Annex A of NFPA 72 for an illustration.) For a shed ceiling, you follow the same guidelines, starting within 3 feet of the high side of the slope.

Corridors

When installing detectors in a corridor, you can sometimes space them farther apart than the listed spacing. In a 10-foot-wide corridor, you can install detectors with a 30-foot listed or nominal spacing up to 41 feet apart because there is no point more than 0.7 times the listed or nominal spacing (see Figure A.17.6.3.1.1(h)). It would be 21 feet from the corner to the first detector, and 21 feet from the detectors to the sidewall between the detectors. Obviously, the maximum distance apart will need to be determined by the corridor width (see Figure A.17.6.3.1.1(g)). By doing this, all points on the ceiling will be within the detector’s area of coverage.

Always use one of the spacing methods to determine the installed location, not the area of coverage. For example, a detector with a 30-foot by 30-foot nominal spacing has an area of coverage of 900 square feet. You can’t use the area of coverage for installation in an area like a corridor. A 900-square-foot corridor that is 10 feet wide and 90 feet long far exceeds the spacing requirement.

About the Author
Tom Hammerberg

Thomas P. Hammerberg

Life Safety Columnist

Thomas P. Hammerberg, SET, CFPS is an independent fire alarm presenter and consultant in The Villages, Fla. He can be reached at TomHammerberg@gmail.com.

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