Smoke Detectors

When it comes to smoke detectors, there is a wide variety of types, features and price ranges.

However, without a doubt it is the single most important item to have functioning in your home.

I read a report recently that stated 86% of the homes in America have detectors. That means, that 1 home in 7 does not have detectors.

A more alarming statistic is that out of that 86% of the homes that do have them, somewhere between 25% and 33% do not have functional detectors.

Of the remaining 53% that have detectors, 50% of that number have inadequate protection by not having a sufficient number of detectors.

For example: 1 downstairs and 1 upstairs in a 2000 square foot, 4 bedroom house absolutely is not enough detectors for that size of a home.

The bottom line is that only 26.5% of the homes in America have adequate smoke detector protection.

The real question is: Are you and your family protected or is someone going to die in a fire?

HAVE A PLAN. PRACTICE IT AND STICK TO IT. Even though children five and under account for only 9% of the population, they account for 17% of the deaths by fire.


The three types of smoke detectors are:

  • ionization – which is the most common and the least expensive;
  • photoelectric – which is a little more expensive; and
  • combination of the two – which is the most expensive, but the most effective.

Ionization detectors are fast acting when a flaming and fast moving fire occurs.

Photoelectric detectors are quicker to respond to smoldering and smoky fires.

Each has its strong points and the homeowner can not predict which type of fire will start in the home.

REMEMBER: Ionization for fast burning and Photoelectric for slow or smoldering fires. Although there are a limited number of choices and they are more expensive, get the combination detectors for the best protection.

Also, you need to choose whether you want:

  • battery operated;
  • house voltage operated with battery back-up; or
  • battery operated wireless detectors.

Battery operated or DC powered detectors require no wiring and depend on batteries for their operation. The batteries must be changed annually or more frequently if they start to “beep”.

The disadvantage of battery powered detectors is:

  1. The batteries MUST BE IN THEM for correct operation; and
  2. The detectors do not communicate with each other.

If one senses a fire, it does not communicate the problem to any other unit. SO, if the unit is in the basement you may not hear it upstairs.

Wired in or AC powered detectors are wired to the homes 120 volt system. These units have a third wire that allows them to communicate with each other.

The electrician should have it set up on its own circuit breaker with no other devices. The advantage is that if one unit detects a fire, it sends a message to all units to sound the alarm.

These units have a battery back up system that allows them to function even without AC power. Of course, the batteries MUST be in them for proper operation.

Wireless detectors are the latest entry into the smoke detector arena.

These offer:

  • ease of installation in homes without dedicated smoke detector wiring;
  • the ability to sound all the detectors at once, if a fire is detected; and
  • finally, the ability to be placed at almost any location for good coverage.

Personally, I prefer the hard wired 120 volt systems with built in battery backup.

Whatever detector you purchase make sure it has the UL seal of approval.

Where to install smoke detectors is a question with many answers and depending upon whom you talk to, you will receive many different answers.

  • A contractor will tell you that 1 or 2 is enough; and
  • The homeowner that had a fire last year will tell you to put them “everywhere”.

What is a good compromise? The general consensus is to install smoke detectors on every level of your home, including the basement.

Do not, however, put one in the garage because there is a good possibility that running your car will trigger the alarm.

Place them in the hallways outside of bedrooms, inside each bedroom and in areas where a fire is likely to start.

Why inside a bedroom? If a fire starts in a bedroom say from a dropped cigarette and the door to that room is shut, the fire would be intense before it was discovered.

Additionally, as soon as that door was opened, the fire monster would be looking for someplace to spread to and you would get burned as it rushes out.

Another good place is at the top of stairs. This is an area where smoke is likely to rise.

The kitchen is not a good area, however. There could be smoke from cooking and after several false alarms, you will be tempted to disable the smoke detector, but don’t.

The detector should be placed just outside the kitchen.

Just outside the laundry room is another area for a smoke detector. I have had a couple of friends that have experienced fires started by their dryer. One was gas and one was electric.

On the average, families have less than three minutes from the time the first smoke alarm sounds to escape the fire. The sooner you hear the alarm the more seconds, you have to get out.

With interconnected detectors, as soon as the fire is detected, all alarms would be activated

The most important thing to remember is maintain the smoke detectors. Give them a good dusting every month and keep those batteries fresh even if they run on 120 volt AC or have a 10 year battery.

Test your smoke detectors every month for correct operation. Finally, develop an evacuation plan and practice it on a regular basis to make sure everyone gets out safely in case of a fire.


Dave Altman

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