“Jeez!, why is my smoke alarm beeping?” Jake mutters. He’s in the middle of cooking a delicious creme brule and his smoke alarm is howling to alert him of smoke in the kitchen. Jake heads to the laundry room to grab a stool, sets it down in the kitchen, and stands on it to turn off the smoke alarm. He continues cooking and keeps an eye on smoke wandering upwards. He doesn’t want to endure another shrieking alarm.

We’ve all been where Jake is—in the process of finishing a meal and interrupted by the howl of a smoke detector. While these situations aren’t preferred and can be rather bothersome, these are life saving tools, and their occasional inconveniences can be avoided by properly placing units.

To get the most out of smoke alarms, they need to be installed correctly and frequently tested to ensure they are functioning properly. Alarms must also be placed properly to avoid false alarm aggravations, which cause fines, and lead some homeowners to unplug their systems entirely—which is always a bad idea.

All Things Installation

The first step to installing a smoke alarm is simply choosing a location. Firefighters encourage to mount these alarms high on walls and ceilings, but away from sensors and exterior doors. Smoke fills a room from the top to bottom, so having detectors high on ceilings will be the quickest way to alert you of potential fire.

Common tips for installation:

  • Install devices at least 10cm or 4 inches from the ceiling or wall
  • Install in every sleeping area, on every level of the house, and in hallways.
  • Don’t install in kitchens or other areas of the home that emit steam like bathrooms or laundry rooms.

A Quick How-To On Installing

Step 1:

  • Begin by measuring the distance between the mounting holes on the back of the mounting bracket.

Step 2:

  • Mark that same distance in the location where you have chosen to install.

Step 3:

  • Drill small holes at that mark.

Step 4:

  • Mount the bracket to this surface that you have chosen with screws.

Step 5:

  • Once the bracket is mounted, mount the rest of the detector.

These are the general steps needed to mount smoke alarms, but you may have a different setup process depending on the particular alarm that you are installing. Always follow the instructions on your manual from the smoke alarm that you have purchased. If for some reason you have trouble installing, hire a professional to come test and install an alarm for you.

If you’re installing a hardwired device that’s interconnected, or you don’t trust yourself with installs, you may want to hire a professional. Smoke alarms are rather easy to install, but the process needs to be done correctly.

Testing an Alarm is Life-Saving

Smoke alarms aren’t foolproof and they don’t last forever. The use in alarms comes from frequent testing and ensuring that they are indeed working. Testing periodically ensures that batteries aren’t dead and that devices haven’t run into some unknown complication.

Basic Testing

Most smoke detectors have a test button that simply needs to be pressed to conduct a test of a unit. Usually a few seconds go by before a test actually starts, but you’ll know the test is in process when you start to hear a loud, piercing siren that comes via the smoke detector. If you can’t hear the siren or it’s soft, this is a sign that you need to replace the alarm.

If you’re testing the alarm, give family members a warning due to how loud the siren is. It’s good for family members to be aware of what the siren sounds like if it were to ever go off. You can also run a false alarm practice scenario by not telling your family of the alarm test to have them run a practice scenario if there were to be an actual incident.

Crisis Test

A crisis test is the form of testing that involves using actual smoke materials to see how a system is operating. Crisis testing should never happen alone, because if something out of the ordinary occurs, you’ll want someone nearby with a fire extinguisher to put out the flames.

A crisis test can be conducted by simply lighting a candle, incense stick, or other material for burning. When a steady smoke stream for this material is achieved, hold it underneath the smoke detector unit, about 12 to 18 inches below. Make sure not to get too close, because you’ll risk damaging the casing on the smoke detector, the actual unit itself, and the delicate materials housed inside of the detector. Make sure the alarm goes off in every room if you have an interconnected system and follow up with turning it off.

  • Aerosol products are great for tests, but make sure the instructions of the aerosol manufacture are followed. The spray should be aimed so it enters the alarm sensor area. Don’t spray the aerosol at the holes that are on the cover of the alarm, because this is where the sound emits. The alarm senses smoke through the opening around the perimeter.
  • The way to test is by holding the aerosol can two feet away from the alarm, ensuring that it is parallel to the wall or ceiling. With this process the test spray is allowed to travel along walls or ceilings to ensure it enters the openings in the perimeter of alarms.
  • Reminder: Spraying in excess at close range of an alarm might affect its sensitivity permanently.
  • It isn’t recommended to ignite combustible materials to test alarms. This could cause an accident or fire.
  • A lower risk option is to light several matches to make sure the alarm is registering smoke particles.
  • UL rated cans of smoke can also be purchased to test devices.  

General Testing Notes:

  • With interconnected alarms, make sure they are all emitting sound together.
  • When testing, include people in other rooms of the house to make sure alarms in every room are working, and to make sure that you can hear alarms from every room. If you fail to hear an audible noise, it means batteries need to be replaced.
  • When dust or debris settle into devices they begin to work improperly
  • If the smoke detector is hardwired to a monitored home security system, make sure to alert your company before going through with the alarm, so they know that a test is taking place and they don’t send responders causing a false alarm situation
  • Even if the unit’s light is on signalling that it has power, still test the device. Never assume it works.
  • You’ll likely have to stand on a chair or use a broom to reach high enough to hit the test button. You can test these devices every week, because the process is that simple.
  • Wear ear protection when standing right next to the alarm when testing. It is very loud.
  • If you just moved into a new house and the house is equipped with smoke alarms, you can check the dates on the devices by looking on the back of them. They will usually display a date of manufacture and you can calculate how the device’s age. If you can’t find the age on the device, replace the unit.
  • An alarm is just a source to alert you of danger. It won’t save you. You still have to be practical and create an action plan and actually respond to the fire with an escape and response. Create one of those.
  • Never decorate any part of the device. No paint, no stickers, and no using it to hang other household items. Doing any of these will impair function.

Pro-Tip: Unplanned Fire Drills to Test the Family

You can also conduct fire alarms to test your family members by letting off unplanned smoke alarms. These will check to make sure that they have their wits about them and know how to respond in the event of an emergency. It’s vital to have an action plan during an event and make sure your family all knows how to respond

Important Notes:

  • Alarms should be tested once a month. Batteries should be changed every six months or twice a year. The entire alarm unit should be changed every ten years. (This is from the date of manufacturing which should be included on the device. If you move to a new home and don’t know the age of your alarms, it’s best to purchase entirely new units.
  • Batteries should be replaced twice a year. The suggestion is in the spring and fall when the time changes and you’re changing clocks.
  • Never remove batteries from a smoke alarm to place them in another device in the house, like remote control, toys, radio, et cetera
  • Never use cleaning sprays or solvents to clean an alarm unit, this can cause damage to the alarm. When cleaning, use a soft brush or a vacuum.
  • Batteries often chirp to alert of a low unit, but you should never wait until this point to replace the batteries. Some alarms have blinking or solid lights that glow to alert that alarms are receiving power.

Reminder: The test alarm on an alarm is used to alert if an alarm is working. It isn’t actually letting you know if an alarm is sensing smoke. Whether or not it can test smoke should always be tested alongside the alarm. Always use both the test button to test batteries and matches or another tool to test with smoke and ensure smoke reading capabilities of the device are functioning properly.