Do Downlights Need To Be Fire Rated?

Recessed downlighters are manufactured with and without a fire rating, so it’s obviously very important to know when and where to use each type. Understanding what the Building Regulations have to say about fire rating lighting for your specific application may not be obviously written and is frankly a challenge even for professionals.

With helpful tips and some common sense applied it’s actually possible for you to know for yourself when to use a fire rated downlight. Let’s quickly walk through a real life case study and see when it’s essential to install them, looking at the common types of fire rating used.

Fire Rated vs Non Fire Rated

Late afternoon the day before the fateful Grenfell Tower fire, I happened to read the entire building regulations related to the spread of fire; I admit for the first time cover to cover. Although I am very familiar with the practice of how to specify fire rated lighting, I was in search of an answer in black and white in order to satisfy a customer’s question. Not surprisingly I could not pinpoint a satisfactory reply from the regs.

We had supplied a series of ceiling downlighter’s for a project upon which I had advised. It was a complete gutting and upgrade of two semi-detached houses which the client intended to rent out. The downlights were supplied without a certified fire rating and I received a call to say the electricians were refusing to install them.

The project’s architect when asked preferred fire rated downlighters – we advised against them – were we at fault?!

When to Choose Non Fire Rated Downlighters

Q: Why did I choose to specify and supply downlighters that were not fire rated?

The building regs explain that fire and the spread of smoke must be contained – they do not currently go as far to say what one should do in a residential house to solve this – regulations are a directive so they must be applied with reasonable judgement. A fire compartment must stop the travel of fire and smoke for up to 1 or 3 hours, any compromise to the compartment – such as a hole in the ceiling for a light fitting – needs to be compensated for if there is a risk of spreading fire to another compartment.

A typical 2-storey house does not have fire doors and fire triggered door closers, which means the whole property is actually one large fire compartment. The reality is if a ceiling within that compartment is compromised by a hole for a downlight to fit in, the fire and smoke would pour out the door of the rooms way before the little holes in the ceiling!

Therefore, a singularly occupied 2 storey home that does not have specific individual fire compartments, does not need fire protected downlights.

Holes for downlighters can compromise a fire compartment

When to Choose Fire Rated Downlights

This means that fire rated downlights are necessary in buildings where fire rated compartmentalisation is required. These are just 2 examples for the UK.

Why not specify fire rated downlighters anyway just in case?

I sympathise with the architect of this project whose emails instructed the client to opt for fire rated fittings anyway – just in case. Doing so can do no harm surely – apart from the clients budget maybe? I prefer not to direct for their use when they are not needed – however, we’re happy to accommodate over specifying if that’s preferred and if in any doubt use them. Some forms of fire rating extend the depth of a fitting behind the plasterboard which can restrict their use.

What Types of Fire rating are There for Downlights?

For a downlight installation to be fire rated, it is tested to see how long it takes to fall out of the ceiling with a fire raging underneath it as if in a real room. The rating will certify if it takes 30 mins, 60 mins or 90 mins for the integrity of that downlight to be lost to allow smoke and fire to escape past it into the ceiling void above.

These are the common types of method used to achieve an acceptable fire rating for a UK home.

Robust Design

fire-rated-IP65-downlight

This is a fairly new one – re-engineered for the LED age. First look and the fitting looks rather spare of materials. The design simply maintains a barrier to flames below the fitting which has a steel bezel and a special silicate glass to resist heat. The unit is kept in place with a strong spring. Its tested and approved and is less expensive. Its simple cutaway design offers the necessary ventilation for the inter-changeable LED lamps too.

Fire Plates

Dino Adjustable LED Downlight
Dino Adjustable LED (shown without fire plate attached)

We think probably unique to our manufacturer of professional quality downlighters, is a simple but effective metal plate that is slotted into the heat sink at the rear of the downlight during installation. This fire plate stops the fitting from dropping out of the ceiling within the required 90 minutes during a fire and allows the back of the downlighter to remain open so the operating temperatures of the LED light engine remain within their designed parameters.

Downlight Fire Hoods

A flexible cover or ‘firehood’ is placed over the back of any downlight. It has holes in it to allow cables to pass into it to power the light and allow the natural heat of the lamp to escape. You would think that a fire hood with holes in it would not work but this cover shrinks over the back of the downlighter when subjected to intense heat, creating a temporary seal.

Downlight Fire Cans

The most common entry-level downlight approach is a solid metal can be positioned over the back of the downlight. Again, easy to install as they come ready to install. However LED performance can be impeded in a variety of ways when they are located in ambient running temperatures higher than their specification, i.e. a canned fire rated downlight. When the airflow around an LED lamp is restricted, temperatures rise and the LED itself will suffer, compromising lifespan with potential unwanted shifts in colour temperatures over time.

Downlight Intumescent Seals

When using dedicated LED downlights, ask the manufacturer how best to achieve the fire rating and keep the running temperatures within acceptable levels. A common choice of downlight uses an intumescent seal, keeping the back of the fitting open.

A ring of intumescent seal around the back of the fitting, with no hood. This seal expands when subjected to the conditions of fire, keeping the downlight in place and sealing the holes to maintain the integrity of the structure. Nothing additional to fit so installation is easy. Operating temperature of the lamp unit is maintained within ideal parameters.

Final Thoughts

Back to our project– with Grenfell Tower on our screens I understood and appreciated the decision of the client to pay the restock fee and higher cost to exchange them for fire rated downlights – despite us proving they didn’t have to. Naturally, rented properties and their inhabitant’s safety is our first responsibility. Perhaps the real tragedy is that we have to learn from such tragic events in order to make us scrutinise the detail.

For a full and extensive range of fire rated fittings and an appraisal as to where you should deploy them – give us a call, we will be pleased to direct you.

Our ‘advice’ in this article is not legally binding and should always be verified with a qualified installer.

Andrew Orange, the owner of Orange Lighting qualified and worked as an interior designer in 1993 before specialising in lighting working on high profile projects based in London. Since starting Orange Lighting Ltd in 2003 he has been sharing his knowledge and unique teaching style mostly to his designer clients, offering practical real life advice born from running a busy consultancy and lighting supply business. Launching in 2020, his blog has evolved into Quick & Easy Lighting, curating some 25 years design experience into making the lighting choice and design process achievable and easy to understand for all.