A couple months ago, I wrote an article about the new smoke detector law which generated a bit of confusion among landlords due to the fact that the original law (SB 1394) was amended by SB 745 shortly before my article was published. This article re-visits the topic and focuses on two specific aspects of the current smoke detector law as amended by SB 745; the requirements and specifications for the devices themselves, and the maintenance and testing of those devices.

Device Requirements

Currently, all smoke alarms must be approved and listed by the State Fire Marshall. As originally passed, SB 1394 required that as of January 1, 2014, in order for the State Fire Marshall to approve a smoke alarm, the device was required to: (1) display the date on which it was manufactured; (2) contain a place to display the date on which it was installed; (3) have a built in hush feature; and, (4) incorporate an “end-of-life” feature providing notice that the device is in need of replacement. However, SB 745 amended the law so that requirements 1-3 above will not go into effect until July 1, 2015, and the requirement that the device have an “end-of-life” feature has been eliminated entirely.

Smoke alarms can be either “hard-wired” with a “battery back-up”, or powered solely by batteries. Beginning July 1, 2014, the State Fire Marshall will not approve a smoke alarm that is solely battery-powered unless it contains a non-removable, non-replaceable 10 year battery. However, smoke alarms without that feature which are ordered or already existing in the inventory of an owner, managing agent, contractor, wholesaler, or retailer on or before July 1, 2014 will be permitted until July 1, 2015, at which time all devices used in rental units will be required to meet the standards set forth above. This is true of both stand-alone smoke alarms and combination smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, (though carbon monoxide detectors are not subject to the ten year battery requirement).

Furthermore, the law mandates that permit issuers may not sign off on the completion of work for dwelling units on which a building permit for alterations, repairs, or additions exceeding $1,000.00 is issued on or after January 1, 2014 until the individual seeking the permit demonstrates that all smoke alarms required for the dwelling unit are devices approved and listed by the State Fire Marshal.

Installation of the Devices

Owners of all rental properties are required to ensure that smoke alarms are installed and operable at the time a new tenancy is created (when a new lease or rental agreement is signed). Currently, smoke alarms are required to be installed on every floor or level of a multi-story dwelling, (including basements) on which a sleeping room exists, as well as centrally located outside each sleeping area. Take note, however, that effective January 1, 2016, owners of rental units intended for human occupancy will be required to install additional smoke alarms, as needed, to ensure that the devices are located in compliance with local building standards in effect at that time, even if they are more stringent than State standards. Currently,California’s Building Code §310.9 already requires a smoke detector to be installed in each bedroom as well as the hallway outside the bedroom.

Take note, however, that effective January 1, 2016, owners of rental units intended for human occupancy will be required to install additional smoke alarms, as needed, to ensure that the devices are located in compliance with building standards in effect at that time.

The law, as drafted, will require owners to verify with state and local government agencies proper placement of the devices while simultaneously prohibiting a new tenant from taking occupancy until it is established that the devices are in compliance with the newest code requirements. While this will require landlords to know and comply with the building and safety requirements for each city in which they own a rental unit, at a minimum there will be a device required on every level of the building, centrally located outside each sleeping area, as well as a separate device inside each bedroom.

Testing and Maintenance

Prior to January 1, 2014, it was only the owners of multi-family rental units who were responsible for testing and maintaining the smoke alarms in their rental units. In other words, owners of single family residential rental units were under no such obligation. However, as of January 1st 2014, owners of both multi-family and single family rental units are now responsible for testing and maintaining the smoke alarms within all of their units. On the other hand, landlords of apartment buildings containing two or more units are required to test and maintain the devices in all of their units, vacant or not.

While most landlords understand that they are required to “test and maintain” the devices, many have asked me what, exactly, is meant by the phrase “test and maintain”.

Testing and maintenance is defined under “National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code 72” (NFPA 72). In order to be in compliance, owners or their agents must ensure that:

  • there have been no changes which would affect the device’s performance (e.g., building modifications, occupancy changes, changes in environmental conditions, physical obstructions, device orientation, physical damage and/or the degree of cleanliness of the device)
  • the devices are installed in the correct positions to meet local codes (room location and position on the ceiling/wall)
  • the devices have not passed their “replace-by date”
  • the devices are functioning and have a tightly connected battery that is charged  and free from corrosion and/or leakage
  • the power supply to hard-wired (electric) alarms is connected to the alarms
  • the devices emit a siren at a decibel level that meets UL standards
  • the devices are adequately secured to the ceiling or wall; and, the test button is functioning properly (causes the device to emit a siren)

While it is the duty of the landlord to test and maintain the devices during the course of the tenancy, the tenant has a corresponding duty to notify the owner once they become aware of a problem with the device. Once an owner has been notified, he or she is then required to correct it under their obligation to “maintain” the device.

As a side note, I have spoken to several landlords who are not entirely happy with their obligation to test and maintain the alarms. On the contrary, I see that obligation as an opportunity for them. Specifically, I mean the obligation to test and maintain the device is a great opportunity for an owner or manager to legally get inside the unit and evaluate its condition on a regular basis. Why is that important? As many landlords know, tenants often fail to notify them of problems in their units. The problem can be as simple as a running toilet or as severe as a leak in the walls or ceiling. Often times the landlord first hears about the problem only after filing an eviction action for non-payment of rent, in which case the tenant invariably alleges that they failed to pay their rent because the landlord “breached the warranty of habitability” by failing to fix the problem.

Some of my clients use their obligation to test and maintain the devices to ask the tenants about other problems that might require repairs or maintenance. In fact, some are even taking a pre-drafted maintenance sheet into the unit with them to be signed by the tenant indicating there are no problems with the unit. Think about that for a second. How valuable would it be to a landlord to have a document signed by the tenant in which the tenant states there are no problems with the unit? In an eviction for non-payment of rent, the existence of such a document could give the landlord a significant amount of leverage in court.

Smoke Detector Law – Simplified

Trying to make sense of all this? Wondering how you can assure yourself that you are in compliance with a law that continues to evolve like this? It is relatively simple. Simply by being proactive, you can eliminate a lot of frustration. Think and plan ahead. First, visit or call the local Department of Building & Safety for the most up to date location requirements for each device and remember to ask whether they anticipate changes in the law within the next couple years. Then buy your smoke detectors from the large, big-box type hardware and supply companies (they are active in the industry, understand the requirements, and tend to sell only the State Fire Marshall approved devices). Remember to purchase devices with the most recent date of manufacture. Finally, install the devices as necessary and implement a policy of recurring inspections to test and maintain the devices.

A reasonable inspection schedule to test and maintain the devices (whether annually, semi-annually, or quarterly) will allow you to legally gain access to your tenants’ units. While inside, use the opportunity to ask your tenant whether there are any other problems requiring repairs or maintenance. If there are, address them and have the tenant sign off that the work has been completed and there are no remaining issues. If the tenant states there are no other problems, have them sign a form saying as much to be saved in their permanent file for use at the appropriate time.

The foregoing information is presented and intended to address the topic(s) covered above in a general nature.  Specific situations and their facts should be presented to your attorney for review.  The Brennan Law Firm is one of the most experienced landlord-tenant law firms in Southern California, representing landlords exclusively in evictions, negotiations, and judgment enforcement. Mr. Brennan may be reached at (626)294-0500, or toll free at (855) 285-2230. Visit their website at www.MBrennanLaw.com for more information.

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