Jesse Roman

14-year old researcher talks smoke alarm effectiveness at 2015 SUPDET Conference in Orlando

Blog Post created by Jesse Roman Employee on Mar 4, 2015

ElyseElyse Gottuk is proof that you don’t necessarily need an advanced degree to do good and useful research—heck, she hasn’t even been to high school yet.

The 14-year old Maryland eighth-grade student is the youngest presenter at this year’s Suppression, Detection and Signaling Research and Applications (SUPDET) Conference, hosted by the Fire Protection Research Foundation. Gottuk’s presentation, “The Effect of Ceiling Fans on Smoke Alarm Performance,” was the first of the day Wednesday, the second day of the 2015 SUPDET conference held at the Wyndham Orlando Resort in Orlando, Florida.

NFPA 72®, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code, states that smoke alarms must be placed at least 3 feet from a ceiling fan. Faced with her upcoming seventh grade science fair—“ I needed an idea,” she said— Gottuk decided to test whether the 3-foot rule made sense. So she borrowed some equipment from her father Daniel Gottuk, an engineer at Jensen Hughes, and went to work.

In a 17x17x8 foot room with a ceiling fan in the middle, she installed a line of smoke detectors on the ceiling, placing the first just next to the fan, the second a foot away and additional detectors 3- and- 6-feet away. She also installed a line of detectors extending 8 feet to the corner of the room. Next, she ran a series of tests, burning shredded paper in a small metal bin first in the center and then corner of the room, taking note of how long it took each alarm to sound. She repeated the experiment with the fan on different speed settings and running clockwise and counterclockwise.

The experiments proved that the fan did impact smoke detection times—the faster the fan went, the longer it took for the alarms to sound. The direction of the fan did not matter. In terms of smoke alarm distance from the fan, Gottuk found that, for a fire near the center of the room, alarm location did not matter for response time. For fires in the corner of the room, the alarms placed more than 3 feet from the fan had faster response times.

Based on the results, Gottuk concluded that further tests should be conducted in smaller rooms to test alarm effectiveness. She also urged NFPA 72 technical committee members to consider amending the code to allow alarms to be installed closer to fans when the 3-foot threshold is not physically possible.

The research drew praise from the SUPDET crowd and even an invite from NFPA 72 technical committee member Richard Roberts for Gottuk to present to the committee at a future meeting.

Asked by an audience member if she had had “fun” conducting the research, Gottuk looked at her father, sitting at the front table just feet away, and said, “sure,” drawing laughs from the crowd.

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