With their proven ability to double your family’s chance of surviving a residential fire, smoke detectors are one of the most valuable fire safety tools on the market. The National Fire Protection Association states that nearly two-thirds of home fire fatalities happen in homes with non-working or missing smoke detectors.
As in real estate, location is important! Smoke detectors should be in installed in every bedroom, outside every sleeping area, and on each level of the home. It’s best to place smoke alarms on a wall or on the ceiling following the manufacturer’s instructions.
There are two primary types of smoke alarm technology: ionization and photoelectric. According to the National Fire Protection Association, ionization alarms are more responsive to flames, while photoelectric alarms are more sensitive to smoldering fires. For the most comprehensive protection, both types or a combination unit should be installed. Alternatively, consider installing a photoelectric alarm, which is better at detecting smoldering fires (vs. flames) near the kitchen. For areas close to the kitchen, use a detector with a hush button that can be used to silence nuisance alarms triggered by cooking smoke or steam. Never remove the unit’s battery to stop or prevent nuisance alarms.
Smoke alarms are such a common presence in our homes that it’s easy to just expect them to work every time. But like many other devices and appliances around the house, smoke detectors require regular cleaning and maintenance to function effectively. While you should always follow the manufacturer’s instructions, the following are general guidelines for smoke alarm maintenance:
- Test smoke detectors monthly by simply pressing their “test” buttons—if the alarm sounds, everything is working fine. If it does not sound, check a battery-operated unit to be sure the battery is inserted properly or replace if needed. If it is an electrical connection, be sure the circuit breaker has not tripped and that the power is turned on to the detector. Always follow manufacturer’s instructions.
- Regularly vacuuming or dusting your smoke alarms can help keep them working properly. Airborne dust and contaminants can interfere with a smoke alarm’s ability to detect smoke. Make it a point to clean all detectors in your home twice a year. Refer to the manufacturer’s instructions for proper procedures.
- Don’t wait for that high-pitched chirp to annoy you into changing smoke detector batteries; instead, keep a standing annual date for replacing the battery in each of your home’s smoke alarms. Just so you don’t forget this important task, choose an easy-to-remember date. Many fire and home safety agencies suggest that you take care of smoke detector maintenance on the same day you turn your clocks back from Daylight Savings Time. Should the low-battery warning occur before the annual date, change the battery immediately. Do not change the battery in units with a lithium battery—replace the entire unit.
- Even with regular cleaning and battery changes, smoke detectors don’t last forever. Replace all the smoke detectors every 10 years. If you’ve lived in your home for less than 10 years but aren’t sure how old the existing smoke alarms are, switch them out for new units immediately.
- Never “borrow” a battery from or disable smoke alarms, even temporarily, as you may forget to replace the battery. If your smoke alarm is sounding “nuisance alarms,” it may need dusting or vacuuming. If that does not work, try relocating it further away from kitchens and bathrooms, where cooking fumes and steam can cause the alarm to sound.
Home safety also raises the issue of the risk of carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning. Often dubbed “the silent killer,” CO is a colorless and odorless gas that is impossible to detect without an alarm. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CO poisoning sends about 15,000 people to emergency rooms each year.
Nearly everyone has carbon monoxide sources in their home. CO may enter your home through leaks in furnaces or chimneys; back-drafts from furnaces, gas-fueled water heaters and fireplaces; gas stoves and generators; and car exhaust from an attached garage, among other sources, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA suggests hiring a professional to clean and check furnaces, flues, and chimneys for leaks each year.
CO alarms should be installed on every floor of the home and near every sleeping area to help detect the presence of CO throughout your home, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) says. Make sure alarms are installed at least 15 feet away from potential sources of CO to reduce the chance of false alarms. If a CO alarm sounds, the NFPA says you should move outdoors or go near an open window or door for fresh air and then call emergency responders.
Test alarm function monthly and change batteries every six months. Make sure to clear CO alarms of all dust and debris. Ensure that alarms are plugged all the way into the outlet or, if solely battery operated, have working batteries installed. Check or replace batteries when you change the time on your clocks each spring and fall, and make certain each person in your home can hear the CO alarm sound from his or her sleeping room and that the sound is loud enough to awaken everyone. If you have young children, you may want to consider an alarm that features both voice and location technology that tells you where in your home CO has been detected. Studies have shown that children ages 6 to 10 awaken more easily to a voice than to the traditional beep of an alarm.