Safe and Sound

The Definitive Guide to the Care and Feeding of a Smoke Detector

September 29th, 2016

The risk of dying in a home fire is cut in half in homes that have working smoke alarms, says FEMA. According to the organization, three out of five deaths result from fires in properties without working smoke alarms. They go on to say that one-third (38%) of home fire deaths result from fires in which no smoke alarms are present.

Most of these tragedies occur because of malfunctioning smoke alarms, a lack of a system entirely, or a user who took down the alarm after some annoying false alarms. With a product so vital to home safety, it’s a wonder that many people still lack the knowledge of the issue to properly inspect and maintain their home alarms. Smoke alarms are one of the most important parts of your home safety, and being on top of the system can also help you avoid false alarms. 

False alarms usually occur due to improper maintenance of smoke alarms. An NFPA study in 2009 found that U.S. Fire Departments responded to an estimated 21 million false alarms, and 45 percent of those were unintentional activation, and 32 percent occurred due to system malfunction (the rest were mischievous or malicious). 

Fire departments across the country went to 16 false alarms for every 10 fires, and 45 false alarms for every ten structure fire. False alarms cause many occupants to turn off tor unplug their system entirely.

An Overview 

Smoke detectors are life saving tools that require proper installation and maintenance, and caring for them is rather quick and easy. Smoke alarms usually fail because of batteries that are missing, disconnected, or dead entirely.

Many fire departments in the country offer free battery operated smoke detectors for residents in communities who can’t afford them. These departments also help with testing and replacing batteries as needed, and they instruct homeowners on proper care and maintenance. Check with these departments for any needs you may have regarding a smoke detector, and to see whether or not they offer free devices in your community.

It’s best practice to install a smoke detector on every floor, every bedroom, and in close proximity of a sleeping room. Make sure you test a battery operated smoke detector every week, and electrical (AC) powered smoke detectors should be tested every month. Replace the batteries on your smoke detectors at least once a year, and replace an entire smoke detector system if it is over ten years old. Most fire victims actually die from smoke inhalation, and this happens long before the fire ever reaches them.

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These fire deaths usually occur when people are sleeping, and between the hours of 2a.m. to 6a.m. Fire increases in temperature rapidly, so it’s vital to have a fire escape plan in your home. The NFPA says that you have less than two minutes to escape your house.

It’s important to remember to never take a part a smoke detector, and to keep the outside portion of the cover free of dust and dirt by lightly vacuuming the outside of the system.

What Else You Need to Know:

There are two different types of smoke alarms, and they are categorized by the type of smoke detection sensor. You either have ionization or photoelectric. We won’t go two deep into the differences between the system, but know if you have a special system that will require different maintenance.

A smoke alarm system will usually chirp when the batteries are getting low. Testing an alarm is as simple as pressing the “test” button that is usually found on the side of the outside of the alarms.

If the smoke alarm has a 10 year lithium battery or a life long battery, then you should replace the entire system based on the manufacturer’s instructions. But remain extremely up to date about testing the system. A good rule of thumb is to replace the entire unit every 8-10 years. A few general rules are: 

  • Don’t ever take the batteries out of a smoke alarm just because it is sounding while cooking. You can resolve this issue by opening up a window or door and pressing the hush button, or by moving the entire alarm several feet away from a kitchen or bathroom. (Sometimes steam from a very hot shower can be the culprit for why the smoke alarm is going off.)
  • Never paint over a smoke alarm because painting it can clog the vents.
  • Some people always change their batteries twice a year, they change them whenever they change their clocks for daylight savings time in the spring and the fall.
  • Usually alarms get dirty via vents or sensors getting clogged with dust and dirt. In many cases you can use a vacuum cleaner to clean, and if you’re ever doing work that will have dust or dirt in close proximity, simply put a plastic bag over the unit.
  • Always make sure that alarms are away from furnaces, ovens, or any area that may exhaust gasses or open flame heating systems like oil and gas furnaces, garages, workrooms, or living rooms are common culprits.
  • Always keep system wires tight. Wires that aren’t tight could lead to a trigger or shut off completely. Tighten up all of the wires and if you don’t know how, contact an electrician for assistance.

For further reading on carbon monoxide poisoning, a problem that smoke alarms also resolve, see our carbon monoxide safety guide here. 

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