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Are downlights a fire hazard?

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Halogen downlight clearance diagram  
When installed properly, halogen downlights should have at least 200mm clearance from structural members and insulation.

When the then Minister for the Environment Peter Garrett announced the Energy Efficient Homes package including the installation of ceiling insulation in 2.7 million homes in February 2009, concerns were raised about the potential dangers relating to insulation around electrical wiring, downlights, proper training for installers and the like (these have now been addressed in AS 3999 amendment 1 (March 2012)).

Regardless, the program began in July 2009, and soon the incidence of fires and a number of related deaths meant that the Government’s initiative was the subject of heavy criticism and a growing public concern regarding the safety of the insulation that had been installed in Australian homes. These incidents also generated a lot of fear and confusion in regards to incandescent halogen downlights and their appropriateness for residential installations.

 

Halogen downlight  
Halogen downlights are safe when installed correctly.

Historical issues

History shows that downlights have been around a very long time, at least 50 years in one form or another. The first versions were quite crude but they have since evolved into quite sophisticated pieces of equipment with very high levels of light output. The energy consumption, life span, size of the globe and various other aspects have all continued to evolve and improve.

Managing heat from downlights has always been an issue though. It has long been reported that when heat generated by the stylish lighting mixes with loose, flammable insulation in the roof cavity, the results are potentially disastrous. Downlights heat up very quickly, and if insulation is sitting beside them or close by, it can easily ignite and spread through the ceiling undetected by the smoke alarm.

 

Fuel sources

Bear in mind that it’s not just insulation that can pose a threat. Exposed downlights can also ignite timber beams, and general ceiling debris such as rubbish and leaves. Rodents, nesting birds and humans moving debris in the roof space can also inadvertently create a fire hazard.

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Preventive measures

First and foremost, the installation of insulation – or any work done in the roof cavity for that matter – should be done by experienced, qualified tradespeople. There are major electrical dangers in a roof space, particularly when downlights are involved. You should always have the installation inspected by an electrician before moving ahead and ensure that a functioning safety switch is being used in your meter box.

All insulation is required to have a fire rating in accordance with Australian Standard (AS1530). Both glasswool and rockwool insulation have excellent fire ratings, and are commonly used in commercial process equipment for fire proofing because of their superior fire proofing properties.

It's important, however, that you always check the fire rating in accordance with AS1530 before you make a decision on what you will use in your ceiling. Halogen downlights are safe when installed correctly alongside insulation and in accordance with AS3999 amendment 1 (March 2012) which outlines the installation of insulation.

Avoiding potentially lethal fire damage can be as simple as placing a heat-resistant fire-proof barrier around the downlight’s transformer in the roof cavity, or using infra-red reflective coating (IRC) bulbs, which reflect most of the heat. Qualified electricians will be aware of this, but if in doubt, ask them what they’ve used. Better yet, ask for a photo!

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