Over 93 percent of homes in the U. S. now have at least one smoke alarm. As more smoke alarms have been installed, the residential fire death rate has fallen substantially; however, the number of smoke alarms that don’t work is increasing, and experts predict that fire deaths will increase again if we do not solve the problem of inoperable smoke alarms. Estimates of inoperable smoke alarms range from one third to one half of homes.
The two most common reasons for inoperable smoke alarms are:
- Disabling them to prevent nuisance alarms.
- Neglecting to replace units that are past their 10-year service lives.
Both problems are easily solved, but the sad truth is that has been no concerted effort in the fire service to attack the problem. The section below on how to reduce nuisance alarms gives several tips on how to keep your smoke alarms working.
How effective are smoke alarms?
Residential fire deaths have decreased steadily as the number of homes with smoke alarms increased. Reports from the National Fire Protection Association show that people have nearly a 50 percent better chance of surviving a fire if their home has the recommended number of smoke alarms.
When do I need to replace my smoke alarm?
Smoke alarms that are 10 years old are near the end of their service life and should be replaced. Some people think that their smoke alarm sits idle until there is smoke present. Actually, it is working every minute, constantly monitoring the air 24 hours a day. An ionization smoke alarm, for example, goes through 3.5 million monitoring cycles in 10 years. In a photoelectric alarm, a light is on constantly to look for smoke coming into the sensing chamber.
Just like any electrical appliance, the working components of smoke alarms wear out over time. When the smoke alarm reaches 10 years of use, the potential of failing to detect a fire increases. Replacing them after 10 years reduces the likelihood of failure.
My smoke alarms are wired into my electrical system.
Do I need to replace them as often as battery-operated alarms?
Yes. Both the hard-wired and battery-operated alarms are equally affected by age.
How many smoke alarms should I have?
The following recommendations are based on standards published by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). The average-sized home or apartment needs more than one. The exact number depends on two things, the number of levels in the home and the number of bedrooms. The NFPA publishes model requirements that state or local authorities can adopt as law. The standards are published in NFPA 72. The chapter on household fire alarms contains separate requirements for new and existing homes. For new homes the standard requires a smoke alarm in each bedroom, one outside the bedroom area that is close enough to be heard through closed doors, and a minimum of one on each level of the home.
If the home is large, use more than one on each level. The closer the alarm is to the fire source, the faster it will work, so extra units give you more safety. Some homes may have more than one bedroom area, so they should have extra smoke alarms.
For existing homes, the NFPA only requires a smoke alarm outside the bedroom area and one on each level of the home. However, it also recommends that homeowners install additional smoke alarms like you would find in new homes. It makes sense to install a smoke alarm in each bedroom. A good number of fires start in bedrooms, and the closer the smoke alarm is to the fire, the faster it will alert you. The recommendations are located in Appendix A of the document.
Are there places where I should not put a smoke alarm? Smoke alarms are not designed to work in extreme heat or cold, or in areas where smoke and dust are common. They are not recommended for unheated attics or similar spaces. They should not be used in garages because they are usually not heated or cooled. Also, the smoke from engine exhaust fumes will cause nuisance alarms and clog the smoke alarm.
Another area of concern is the kitchen. If a smoke alarm is installed too close to cooking and baking, this may result in nuisance alarms. The NFPA is addressing this problem and will soon require that smoke alarms installed within 20 feet of cooking be photoelectric or have a silencing button. We have a section below on the two types of smoke alarms for residences.
What about heat detectors?
Heat detectors are now referred to as heat alarms. Smoke alarms consistently respond much faster than heat alarms. The nationally recognized standard on fire alarms is Standard No. 72, published by the National Fire Protection Association. Many fire officials refer to the chapter on Household Fire Warning Systems for determining their requirements for new and existing homes. NFPA 72 does not require heat alarms in either new or existing homes. It does, however, contain recommendations for additional protection in Appendix A. The primary recommendations in the appendix are for more smoke alarms, but heat alarms are also addressed.
The reference in the appendix talks about heat alarms for areas in the home where smoke alarms are not recommended. The examples include garages, attics, unheated crawl spaces and kitchens. The air in the spaces like garages can become too hot or cold for smoke alarms to operate properly. Smoke alarms are not recommended for kitchens if the cooking causes nuisance alarms. On the other hand, if the smoke alarm does not cause nuisance alarms, then its location is fine.
For all other spaces like living rooms, dens, dining rooms and bedrooms, the standard recommends smoke alarms. It cautions you against depending primarily on heat alarms. The Consumer Product Safety Commission takes a similar position.
Is there more than one type of smoke alarm, and how do they differ? There are two types of smoke alarms currently available for homes. One type is called an ionization alarm because it monitors "ions," or electrically charged particles in the air. Smoke particles entering the sensing chamber change the electrical balance of the air. The alarm's horn will sound when the change in electrical balance reaches a preset level.
The other type of alarm is called photoelectric because its sensing chamber uses a beam of light and a light sensor. Smoke particles entering the chamber change the amount of light that reaches the light sensor. The alarm sounds when the smoke density reaches a preset level.
Is one type better than the other?
Both types meet the same test standards of Underwriters Laboratories, but each has its own advantages. The ionization alarm responds faster to small smoke particles, while the photoelectric responds faster to large smoke particles. Flaming fires produce more small smoke particles and smoldering fires produce more large particles.
Fire research shows that a fire with a lot of small smoke particles will cause an ionization smoke alarm to sound sooner than a photoelectric. The time delay between the two is relatively small. On the other hand, a fire with a lot of large smoke particles will cause a photoelectric smoke alarm to sound sooner than an ionization. In this case the time delay between the two can be relatively long.
Because the ionization type alarm is sensitive to small smoke particles, it will respond more quickly to cooking. If you experience this problem, you have several options:
1) Move the unit farther away from the cooking area. The cooking gases will be more diluted in the air when they reach the smoke alarm.
2) Install a photoelectric smoke alarm.
3) Install a combination ionization/photoelectric alarm. When the two sensors are combined in one unit, the ionization sensor is set at a slightly less sensitive level. Thus the unit is less prone to nuisance alarms and you have a unit with greater sensitivity to both fast-flaming and slow smoldering fires.
4) Install an ionization smoke alarm that has a hush button. This allows you to silence the unit for 15 minutes while you remove the source of the nuisance alarm (e.g., burnt toast) and clear the air. This is not as convenient as options 2 or 3, but it will work as long as you can reach the button and don't get aggravated enough to remove the battery.
What is more important, the type of alarm or the number?
The number of smoke alarms is important. Smoke alarms that are spaced farther apart may be farther from the fire, lengthening the time it will take for smoke particles to reach it. Installing several smoke alarms reduces the potential distance from the fire source and provides better coverage, so the most important thing is to install enough alarms in the proper locations.
The distance from a fire can also change the smoke, and this is where the difference between the ionization and photoelectric smoke alarms becomes important. What can take place is called "smoke aging." As smoke particles move away from the fire, the heat dissipates and the smoke cools. As smoke gets cooler, the smoke particles and coagulate into larger particles. The farther the distance from the fire to the smoke alarm, the cooler the smoke and the larger the smoke particles. Ionization smoke alarms are better at detecting smaller particles, while the photoelectric respond better to larger particles. In these situations, photoelectric smoke alarms have an advantage.
Happily, you no longer have to choose between an ionization or photoelectric smoke alarm. Units with both types of sensors are also available. Because the unit has both types of sensors, the manufacturers do not have to make the ionization sensor as sensitive, thus making it less prone to nuisance alarms from cooking.
My smoke alarm goes off when I cook. How can I stop this?
Ionization-type smoke alarms are more sensitive to cooking smoke and gases than the photoelectric type. There are several options for handling this problem. One way is to replace the ionization alarm with one that has a "silence button" that quiets it for a few minutes. Another option is to move the alarm farther away from the cooking area, giving the smoke a chance to dissipate. Moving a ceiling-mounted alarm to a wall can also reduce nuisance alarms. However, this will also make it a little slower to respond to a real fire.
Another option is to replace the ionization-type alarm with a photoelectric alarm. This alarm is less sensitive to smaller smoke particles and thus is less affected by cooking smoke.
You can also select a combination ionization/photoelectric alarm (both sensors in one unit). It will be less sensitive to cooking and responds faster to smoldering fires than ionization units. The reason that it is less sensitive to cooking is because the manufacturer can make the ionization sensor less sensitive when a photoelectric sensor is also present.
How can I test my alarm?
Every smoke alarm comes with a test button. We recommend that people test their alarms regularly, at least once a month.
Should I use real smoke to test my alarms?
This is not recommended because the burning objects used to create the smoke might cause a fire. Some stores sell pressurized cans of simulated smoke for this purpose. When using this product, follow the operating instructions and do not get the can too close to the alarm. If held too close, the simulated smoke may coat the alarm's sensing chamber, which can make the alarm inoperable.
How important is it to clean my alarms?
Periodic cleaning is very important. Smoke alarms have small screens around the sensing chamber to keep small bugs and dust particles out. But dust can accumulate on the screen and slow air movement through it. Cleaning is easy. Just vacuum around the outside of the the alarm at least once a year.
What about changing batteries?
Smoke alarm batteries should last at least one year under normal conditions. The biggest reason that smoke alarms don't work is because people remove the batteries - either to stop the low battery signal or a nuisance alarm - and forget to replace them. When a battery reaches the end of its service life, the alarm will give a short beep every minute or so. It is easy to remove the battery and then forget to replace it. The best way to prevent this is to replace batteries at the same time each year before the low battery signal begins.
Are 10-year batteries a good idea?
Smoke alarms sold with 10-year batteries should be sealed to prevent the replacement of the battery because the smoke alarm itself should be replaced after 10 years. The low-battery signal will begin to "chirp" (a brief beep about once every minute), meaning that it is time to discard the whole unit and replace it with a new smoke alarm. You can buy 10-year batteries that can be placed in other smoke alarms, but you should never put one in an older new smoke alarm. The battery will outlast the working life of the smoke alarm.
NOTE: Ten-year batteries will not last for their stated service life in photoelectric smoke alarms because this type of smoke alarm uses more power than an ionization type. However, there is nothing wrong with installing a long-life battery in them as long as you remember to replace the smoke alarm itself when it is ten years old.
Is the radioactive element in ionization units a hazard?
No. The bit of Americium 241 that is used will not cause harm. It has less power than the radium that is used in watch dials. To give you an idea of its safety, a person flying coast to coast gets more radiation in the sky than you do with a long-term exposure to an ionization smoke alarm. In fact, you can discard the smoke alarms in the trash without any special precautions.
When you read claims that ionization smoke alarms are hazardous, be aware that competitors or experts working for competitors have been known to make assertions about the so-called radiation hazard. We have found that they have no basis in fact. When ionization smoke alarms were first manufactured, the federal government monitored their use to assure that they would not pose a risk to consumers. After several years of monitoring, the government was confident that they were safe and halted its monitoring program.