What lies behind the downlighter?
Poorly installed downlighters, also known as recessed luminaires, are the cause of a significant number of fires in homes every year. As shown here, the damage caused by overheating halogen spots in a bathroom can be devastating.
Why downlighters can be a fire risk
Under normal operating conditions, the surface temperature of tungsten halogen lamps can exceed 200°C, which is above the ignition temperature of many combustible materials. But without adequate ventilation to permit safe heat dissipation, downlighters which are not designed to be covered by thermal insulation or which are installed too close to combustible materials (such as roof timbers) can cause fires or harmful thermal effects to their surroundings.
Even when insulation is not present, there is a risk that dust, debris and other potentially combustible materials can ignite if they come into contact with the hot lamp. Overheating can occur where thermal insulation is laid over existing downlighters and any associated transformers that are not designed to operate safely under these conditions.
Downlighters may be described as 'Fire rated'. This means that they have in-built fire protection that completely seals the downlighter in the event of a fire in the room below in order to prevent the spread of fire and smoke into other areas. It is recommended to use 'fire-rated' downlighters fitted with 'aluminium' reflector lamps to help ensure that any fire in the space below is kept out of cavities and that the heat build-up above and within the fitting is minimised.
Should a selected design or style of downlighter with integral fire protection not be available, additional protection may be fitted at the time of installation in the form of a purpose-made 'fire hood', an insulated fire protection box, or similar.
Covering with thermal insulating materials
To avoid the risk of fire, as well as reduced lamp and service life, caused by overheating, downlighters and any associated transformers must not be covered by thermal insulation and need to be protected against potential or future covering, unless they are specifically designed to operate safely in this condition. Particular care must be taken where loose-filled insulation is present, as this can easily be moved by drafts, vermin, etc, and may then come into contact with the downlighter. Building Regulations do not prohibit leaving a small area around downlighters free from thermal insulation where this is necessary to permit the dissipation of the heat they generate. However, due allowance for this should be made in the overall thermal and acoustic performance of the premises.
Alternatively, where access to the space above the downlighter can be achieved, a proprietary insulation support box or similar cover will, in most cases, ensure sufficient air space around the downlighter to prevent overheating.
Alternatives to tungsten halogen lamps
We would recommend replacing the halogen spots with low-energy lamps, such as CFL (compact fluorescent) or LED lamps, as they produce less heat than traditional tungsten halogen lamps and thus reduce the risk of fire. They also use less electricity.
Safe disposal of lamps
Some downlighter lamps, such as energy-efficient compact fluorescent lamps displaying the crossed-out 'wheelie bin' symbol, must not be disposed of in general household waste. Take the lamps to a recycling facility that accepts electrical products. Check with your Local Authority for your nearest recycling centre. Further information can be found here.
Anglian Home Surveyors are leading building surveyors in Cambridge and Haverhill, so if you’re considering buying a property and you’re at all concerned about the electrical installations, why not call us on 01223 661439 to commission a building survey?
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