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The Top Fire Code Violations in Commercial and Residential Buildings

Updated: Apr 20, 2023

Fire exit plan Illustration

Many people think of fire codes as an inconvenience or annoying hoop to jump through. But every property owner or manager wants to keep their property safe and the truth is that fire codes are an essential part of fire protection. Every property owner should be committed to avoiding fire code violations.

In this article, we will discuss the most frequent fire code violations so you know what to look out for when it comes to your own property’s fire protection system. We will also explain why following these fire codes is important and how you can ensure that a building meets all necessary regulations without a lot of extra hassle for you. We won’t cover every local fire code (because there are a lot and they vary from place to place) but we’ll hit on the most important ones.

Overloading Circuits

Asking too much from your electrical circuits is one of the most common fire code violations. A circuit is a group of connected electrical outlets that is designed to carry a limited amount of electricity safely. The number of outlets a circuit allows in commercial and residential buildings is governed by fire codes because wiring can overheat if too many appliances or equipment are connected to one circuit. Large appliances, such as refrigerators and washers, are often wired into individual circuits to prevent any potential fire hazards.

Overloaded circuits can quickly heat up, creating short circuits and sparks that can ignite fires. Most property owners or managers are not trained electricians so fire codes are put in place to ensure residents or visitors to a commercial property are not put in unnecessary danger. These codes help you understand how much wattage each appliance needs, what devices draw the most wattage, and how many outlets a property can safely have per circuit to maintain a proper load for your property’s electrical system.

New construction projects include a thorough inspection to ensure the edifice is up to code and proper fire protection is in place. While there may be situations where it might be tempting to try to skirt certain codes, it’s not worth it in the long run. Certain remodels or property additions require permitting and inspections for the same reason but for smaller DIY projects it is still important to enlist the help of a trained electrician to prevent potential disasters and ensure fire safety for those visiting or living in the property.

electric wire in box

Cutting Corners on Wiring

Wiring throughout a building plays an integral role in the fire safety of its occupants and is heavily regulated by fire codes. Poor wiring is a common fire code violation, leading to unsafe conditions that can cause disastrous consequences. Inadequately wired buildings pose risks from possible electrical fires as well as shock hazards if wiring comes into contact with moisture or if wiring is left exposed. According to the Electrical Safety Foundation, home electrical fires alone “account for an estimated 51,000 fires each year, nearly 500 deaths, more than 1,400 injuries, and $1.3 billion in property damage.”

It is crucial for wiring to be up-to-date to avoid fire code violations and adhere to safety standards. New builds, inspections, and any electrical updates, upgrades, or additions should be handled by a trained electrician according to local fire code. Improper wiring cannot only result in injury or death, but legal issues for those responsible for ensuring adequate wiring of the building.

Defective Heating Appliances

Heating appliances can become dangerous when they fail to comply with local fire codes, are not properly installed, or when the wrong type of appliance is used in the wrong space. Even heating appliances that are installed properly may become defective due to repeated use without regular service and maintenance, resulting in wear and tear.

The National Fire Protection Association lists heating appliances as one of the top five leading causes of home or apartment fires in the U.S., causing $1 billion in property damage annually. To avoid fires, explosions and/or electric shocks, use an approved device and establish regular servicing and maintenance plans, ideally by a trained professional.

Homeowners or tenants can also play a part by regularly cleaning heating units, replacing air filters, ensuring heating equipment has plenty of space, and being on the lookout for signs of defective heating equipment, such as: frayed or damaged wiring, smoke or unusual odors coming from the heating source, sparks or flames, or loud noises.

Other items worth noting: portable heating appliances, like smaller space heaters, should not be left unattended for extended periods of time and extension cords should always be in good shape. Those two items are often purchased by renters or homeowners without much thought because they are simple and relatively affordable. But because they are portable, they are often subject to wear and tear that can damage them in a way that create fire risks.

do not block emergency exit

Blocked Exits

This fire code violation is more common in commercial buildings because they tend to have high foot traffic (and most homes don’t often get visits from the local fire marshal). Overcrowding near exits, or placing large furniture too close to doorways or emergency exit doors makes it difficult for occupants to escape safely if there were ever a real emergency, such as a fire breaking out.

Most building owners don’t ever intentionally block exit doors. Typically, items are placed near exits temporarily. But it’s impossible to predict when a fire breaks out. If a fire emergency occurs and you have obstructed passageways or exits then it’s already too late.

Combustible Materials

Improper storage of combustible materials such as oil-based paints, solvents, aerosols, or fuels used for running machinery is another frequent fire code violation. Inadequate storage spaces or incorrect containment methods used during transportation from one place to another within the premises itself (i.e using cardboard boxes instead of metal containers) can create a fire hazard.

Smoke Detectors

Smoke detectors are one of the most fundamental elements of proper fire protection systems and are critical for protecting against fire damage, so it’s no surprise that they’re legally required. Residential buildings should include a smoke alarm in every room where a person sleeps, as well as an alarm outside sleeping rooms on every floor of the building. Larger homes or apartments may have additional requirements.

It is also important for businesses to make sure they always have working smoke detectors installed, as well as properly maintained emergency backup lighting along escape routes which should be checked regularly by an HVAC technician or electrician who understands current fire safety standards in their area.

Installing smoke alarms is the first step, but keeping them in working order is an ongoing responsibility of property owners. It doesn’t take much time or effort and ensuring a building’s smoke detectors are installed and maintained properly can be a lifesaver. Yearly maintenance is often as simple as replacing a smoke detector battery. To learn more about smoke detectors, see our helpful guide: Smoke Alarms 101.

Installing FireAvert's auto stove shutoff

Smoke Alarm Monitoring Systems

While not required by law, smoke alarm monitoring systems provide an extra layer of protection against the threat of fire. These fire protection systems use cloud-based monitoring to automatically shut off appliances like stoves when a smoke alarm is triggered. So not only do they alert residents of a fire but they provide priceless fire protection by helping prevent that fire from spreading by cutting off the initial heat source.

Carbon Monoxide Detectors

Carbon monoxide is an odorless, invisible gas that can be released from furnaces, fireplaces, and other sources of combustion. When present in high concentrations, carbon monoxide can be deadly. That’s why carbon monoxide detectors are an essential addition to any home.

In the United States, carbon monoxide detectors must be installed in all newly constructed homes, as well as existing dwellings when they undergo contiguous renovations that require a building permit. This code is in place to protect inhabitants from carbon monoxide poisoning due to faulty heating systems and other potential carbon monoxide sources throughout the home. Carbon monoxide detectors should be checked frequently and replaced regularly to ensure maximum protection of those living inside the home.

Fire Extinguishers and Sprinkler Systems

Obviously, fire extinguishers or a fire sprinkler system won’t prevent fires. But they do help mitigate the damage once a fire has occurred. This makes them crucial fire safety measures to have in place. The number of fire extinguishers and the requirement to install fire sprinklers varies by building type and location so you’ll need to ensure you meet local regulations.

Preventing fires from spreading throughout the entire structure quickly could not only save lives but also save thousands, if not millions, of dollars. Again, we all hope to prevent fires in the first place. But in the event a fire does occur, quickly stopping the spread is paramount and extinguishers and a fire sprinkler system are two of the best tools available.

Red Exit Door

Fire Doors

Fire doors are an important part of building safety and are required by law in specific parts of commercial buildings. Often made of metal or fire-resistant materials, fire doors can be outfitted with carbon monoxide detectors for added protection. Fire doors help save lives by providing vital protection against fires and carbon monoxide poisoning.

As the law requires, any exits or passageways that connect multiple stories of a building should be equipped with at least one fire door in order to prevent smoke and heat from traveling between floors. Additionally, all external entrances to escape routes should also be fitted with a fire door.

Fire Alarms

The exact requirements for fire alarm installation varies by jurisdiction but the National Fire Protection Association has established a code that most of the laws in the country adhere to. You’ll want to consult all applicable fire codes for your specific property but, in general, fire alarms are typically required in places of assembly (e.g. churches, movie theaters), offices, and retail stores.

A fire alarm can be a lifesaver, especially in large buildings where alerting large groups of people quickly is important. If you own or manage a property like this then ensure it meets this important fire code.

Common Fire Code Violations At a Glance

It is important to be familiar with and adhere to common fire code violations to avoid common fire safety risks.

Common fire code violations include:
  • Overloading circuits

  • Faulty wiring

  • Defective heating appliances

  • Blocking exits

  • Failure to properly store combustible materials

  • Failure to install and maintain smoke and carbon monoxide detectors

  • Inadequate fire extinguishers or fire sprinklers

  • Lack of functioning fire doors in commercial buildings

Following these regulations is not only necessary for property owners to pass fire safety inspections, but is also crucial to proper fire safety and plays an important role in ensuring the wellbeing of all who occupy the building or its surrounding areas. We know maintaining a property is a lot of work so a single fire code violation might not seem like a big deal. But being vigilant in maintaining comprehensive fire protection systems is too important to overlook. We hope this blog has been helpful in educating you about common fire code violations and how to make sure your home or business is following these codes.

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