Smoke detectors (also known as smoke alarms) play a vital role in surviving home fires. According to the National Fire Protection Association, 57% of home fire deaths occurred in residences without a working smoke detector or without a smoke detector entirely. Here’s what you need to know about purchasing, installing, and maintaining a smoke detector.
Smoke detector types
“Photoelectric smoke detectors are more sensitive to particles generated by fires that smolder,” explains Paris Lytle, Lowe’s Store Manager in Charlotte, NC. “The hardwire in photoelectric smoke alarms has a built-in sensor designed to reduce common nuisance alarms, like those caused by cooking fires and shower steam.”
Ionization alarms are more responsive to particles generated by fast-acting flames, which often result from flammable liquids, wood, grease or paper catching on fire. Lytle explained that this type of fire typically produces very little smoke, which is why ionization alarms are a safe option for quickly sensing fast-acting fires in your home.
For protection against both smoldering and fast-acting fires, Lytle recommends installing smoke detectors with both ionization and photoelectric sensors – what is known as a dual sensor. “Dual-sensor smoke and fire alarms use both ionization and photoelectric sensors to alert you of a high-flame or smoldering fire in your home as early as possible,” Lytle explains.
Smart smoke detectors
According to Rebecca Edwards, senior safety expert at SafeWise, a smart smoke detector uses smart home technology. “It can be connected to a home security system or app that lets you know of potential trouble immediately, even if you’re away from home when smoke is detected,” she says.
Smoke/CO detector combos
Exactly what they sound like, “These detectors look out for both carbon monoxide and smoke to give you double protection in one device,” Edwards says.
Interconnected smoke detectors
According to Edwards, “These are smoke alarms that are connected to each other throughout your entire home. “ She says they’re the safest detectors since smoke that is detected in one room or floor of the home will cause an alert to sound from every smoke detector in the house. “This is extra protection that ensures you never miss a smoke alarm,” Edwards explains.
Where to place smoke detectors
You need a minimum of one smoke detector on each floor, according to Raymond Williams, Acting Deputy Fire Chief of the Birmingham Fire and Rescue Department in Birmingham, AL. He recommends placing the smoke detectors on your ceilings, but acknowledges that some people have high ceilings that may be difficult to reach or unsuitable for an alarm. In this case, he suggests placing the smoke detectors on the wall, a couple of inches (but no more than a foot) away from the ceiling.
“The smoke detector needs to be in a place where you can reach it to test it,” Williams says. “If you need to climb a ladder, you probably won’t test it as often as you should.”
Williams also recommends placing smoke detectors in the hallway that leads to the bedrooms, and in each bedroom if possible. You may be wondering why you need alarms in the hallways if you’re putting smoke detectors in each of the bedrooms. A study by the Consumer Product Safety Commission found that when a lightweight door is closed, the volume of a smoke alarm signal in another room is reduced by 10 to 20 decibels. Add to this the fact that most people are sleeping when they’re in their bedroom, which could make it even harder to hear an alarm.
“The smoke detector needs to be in a place where you can reach it to test it. If you need to climb a ladder, you probably won’t test it as often as you should.”
Raymond Williams, Acting Deputy Fire Chief
Birmingham Fire and Rescue Dept.
But these aren’t the only places you need a smoke detector. Lytle recommends placing one detector at the top of stairways, at the bottom of stairways going to a basement, and in the living area.
However, Williams says they should not be placed close to your cooking appliances because you’ll get a lot of false alarms. “It should be at least 10 feet away (and preferably 20 feet) from this area,” he says. According to the NFPA, if you have to place the alarm within 10 to 20 feet of the kitchen stove, choose a photoelectric alarm or an alarm with a hush feature so you can silence it temporarily without actually disabling the alarm.
The bathroom is a tricky area. “If your smoke alarm is too close to places that may produce heat or steam, like the shower, you can end up with a blaring alarm every time you wash your hair,” warns Edwards. And that’s why Lytle recommends photoelectric alarms for these types of areas. “Because photoelectric alarms are programmed to reduce false alarms, they‘re an excellent choice for installation in or near kitchens, near fireplaces, or in hallways directly outside bathrooms, utility rooms, or other areas prone to steam,” Lytle explains.
Other smoke detector placement tips
Check power input
Installing your smoke detector is only the first step to keeping you safe. According to the NFPA, smoke detectors don’t always work, and when this happens, it’s usually for the following reasons:
Battery-powered detectors: missing or disconnected battery, a dead or discharged battery, unclassified reason for failure, a lack of cleaning
Hardwired-only detectors: hardwired power failure/shut-off/disconnect, unclassified reason for failure, lack of cleaning, defective unit
Hardwired detectors with battery backup: missing or disconnected battery, unclassified reason for failure, hardwired power failure/shut-off/disconnect, lack of cleaning
Recommended testing cadence
If you have a smoke alarm that uses lithium batteries, the NFPA notes that the batteries don’t have to be changed for 10 years. If you don’t have a 10-year battery, changing your batteries when the time changes (Daylight Saving Time) is one way to remember smoke detector maintenance. “Or, you can write the installation date on the batteries with a permanent marker and remember to replace them immediately if the device signals low-battery,” suggests Lytle.
Regardless of your smoke detector type, you should test every device in your home at least once a month, Williams advises.
However, fire isn’t the only potential danger. “Homeowners should also be aware of the importance of installing carbon monoxide detectors,” says Lytle. “This colorless, odorless gas is produced by any fuel-burning appliance or fixture — such as a furnace, water heater or fireplace, and it can build up in the home from malfunctions or improper venting in these devices.”
If you have an automated home with a smart home security system, depending on the type of system, when you’re not at home, you will either receive a notification and then call the fire department, or the monitoring service will send fire personnel to your home.
Frequently asked questions
What else could cause my smoke detector to go off?
“Drafts can also cause false alarms, so keep your detectors away from windows, doors, and vents that may disrupt the regular functioning of your smoke alarm,” Edwards says.
When should I replace my smoke detectors?
The NFPA recommends replacing them every 10 years.
What if I can’t afford one?
“There are almost always local places that provide fire alarms for free,” Williams says. “Sometimes, your local fire department will not only give you free alarms, but also install them – but it depends on the department.” Also, in some states, he says The Red Cross will provide and install smoke alarms.
The Bottom Line
A smoke detector can help save lives, but only if you maintain it, which includes monthly tests, swapping out the batteries on a timely basis, and ensuring that it is properly connected.