Better safe than sorry

Here, Ovia provides the answer to a question that is typically asked – do all downlights need to be fire rated?

The simple answer is no, not every downlight needs to be fire rated.  It all depends on the overall construction of the building and the ceiling into which the downlight is to be installed. However, for all downlights installed into a ceiling Electrical Safety First recommends the use of ‘fire-rated’ downlights to ensure fire and excessive heat are kept out of cavities.  Legally, any building worked carried out in England and Wales must adhere to the Building Regulations.  Fire safety is covered by Approved Document and Part B. So let us take a step back and examine the whole area of fire rating and when and why it is required and what are the testing requirements. 

Why is fire rating required?

A standard house in the UK usually has two floors, and where there is living space above, the wooden floor construction with plasterboard ceiling must pass stringent fire tests.  In these properties, the complete floor/ceiling construction between the two floors, must withstand a minimum of 30 minutes of fire to 1) prevent rapid fire spread which could entrap occupants of the building, and 2) to reduce the chance of fires becoming large, on the basis that large fires are more dangerous, not only to occupants, fire and rescue service personnel, but also to people in the vicinity of the building. Where there is no living space above, for example loft space, no fire rating is required. However, we would still recommend fire-rated downlights in the event the fire was to spread and affect the roof structure and the safety of the building.  

The more floors in a building, the longer the fire protection/compartmentation has to last. In a three-story building with the loft converted to a bedroom, the complete ceiling/floor constructions must comply with a minimum of 60-minute fire rating to give enough time for the occupants to evacuate in the event of a fire.

Downlights and fire rating

The floors and ceilings will have passed fire testing as a complete structure, but once an aperture for a downlight is made, the fire barrier is compromised.  A standard open back downlight allows the fire, vapours and heat to penetrate the floor space and can lead to potential collapse before the required times of 30, 60 or 90 minutes. 

A fire-rated downlight uses a sealed steel body, together with an exterior intumescent strip around the unit. In the case of a fire, these elements separate the room from the ceiling void, preventing the spread of fire for a period of time. The intumescent material helps stop the fire, heat and vapours from spreading into the void. 

NHBC guidelines

Guidelines from NHBC on recessed light fittings have provided the industry with one of its most recent challenges. With the increasing use of I-joists and metal web joists as part of floor construction – around 70% of new build homes feature engineered timbers joists, as opposed to solid timber joists which dominated the market 20 years ago - the National Housebuilding Council (NHBC) updated its technical guidance on recessed light fittings in ceilings to intermediate floors in houses. As a result, the NHBC now requires test evidence showing that recessed downlights are suitable for a similar I-joists/web joists and plasterboard combination. 

For many years the market for fire-rated downlights has been the cause of some confusion, with many manufacturers making claims but not always having the technical data to back up these claims. The NHBC guidance on the use of fire-rated downlights makes it very clear that only correctly tested products can be used in the type of floor construction in which they are being fitted.   

At Ovia we design our products to withstand the rigorous testing that is necessary to meet the requirements of the British Standard governing their safety.  Wholesalers should be using this information when advising their customers on the right products for the project they have in mind. With a Scolmore fire rated downlight they have the assurance that this is a quality product that has undergone all the required and rigorous testing and is a reliable and safe product to use.

Some manufacturers will state that their products have a 90-minute fire rating. However, that doesn’t always mean that they will meet the requirement for 30 or 60 minute ratings. Each rating has its own test, so they should have passed all three tests to ensure the full rating requirement.

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