Smoke alarms are a godsend. These seemingly unremarkable devices have saved the lives of so many people all over the country. That is, if they work well.
Families sleeping peacefully at night, only to be awoken by the incessant noise of their smoke alarms have become an all too familiar story. On the other hand, you may have also heard of unfortunate circumstances where the smoke alarms installed didn’t work and failed to alert homeowners on time.
On this page:
- The Importance of a Smoke Alarm
- Statistics About Smoke Alarms
- Types of Smoke Detectors
- Where to Install Smoke Detectors
- Reasons Why Your Smoke Alarm Keeps Going Off but There is No Fire
- Smoke Alarm Maintenance
- Is Your Smoke Alarm Too Sensitive? Make Sure it Doesn’t Go Off When You’re Cooking
- Want to Replace Your Smoke Detector? Consider These 4 Brands
- Hardwired Smoke Detector vs. Battery-Operated
- Why Does Your Smoke Alarm Keep Going Off? Get the Help of an Electrician
Given this scenario, you might wonder why you need to have a smoke alarm installed at home. After all, there is no guarantee that it would work well 100% of the time. So, why should you still go for it?
The Importance of a Smoke Alarm
If there is a very high chance for you and your household to survive because of a smoke alarm, compared to a nearly zero chance if you don’t have one, wouldn’t you prefer to go with the better odds?
This is why it is important to have smoke alarms at home. These inconspicuous devices greatly increase any household’s chance of surviving a house fire, especially if they happen at night or at odd hours. Smoke alarms are one of the best but most inexpensive ways to save lives.
Most people believe that in fires, the flames will be primary cause of fatalities. However, this is far from true, as people will more often die first by too much inhalation of dangerous gas or smoke before the fire will reach them. Smoke generally travels faster than the flames, that’s why it causes the most harm.
Well-maintained smoke alarms work 24/7, that’s why they will immediately alert you once it detects smoke. This allows you to have the chance to immediately investigate, put out the fire if possible, and evacuate your home safely before the firefighters come rushing in to do their job without worrying about anyone being trapped inside anymore.
Statistics About Smoke Alarms
You might think we’re exaggerating the need for smoke alarms, but we’re not. In fact, this is backed up by numbers. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has made the following discoveries in relation to it:
- Out of all the fires that were reported to the different fire departments in the country from 2009 to 2013, it was discovered that the smoke alarm worked in around 53% of those fires
- Out of five house fire deaths, 3 of those came from residences where the smoke alarm doesn’t work or there is no smoke alarm at all
- It is reported that 38% of the total house fires that had fatalities came from households with no fire alarms, while another 21% were from homes that have smoke alarms installed but did not work
- In every 100 fires, only 0.59 deaths happened in homes with smoke alarms installed, which is lower than the 0.98 deaths that happened in homes without any smoke alarm and the 1.89 deaths in homes with smoke alarms that failed to activate
Based on the figures above, you probably noticed that there were more fatalities in homes that had smoke alarms that did not work, compared to those that did not have them at all. This is likely due to the sense of complacency of homeowners, believing their smoke alarms would work forever without having to do any kind of maintenance on them. Unfortunately, this is a fatal mistake for many of them.
Types of Smoke Detectors
You may think that smoke alarms are all the same, that’s why you may think of just grabbing the cheapest ones you can find out there. If you have this mindset, don’t worry – you’re not alone.
There are actually three types of smoke detectors you can choose from, and these are:
- Photoelectric or optical smoke detector – comprised primarily of a photoelectric sensor and a light beam that shines away from this sensor, this type of alarm uses to light to detect smoke. Once smoke goes inside the detection chamber of the smoke detector, the light beam will scatter and this will trigger the smoke detector to activate
This type of smoke alarm works faster than the ionization type for smoke that come from smoldering materials or sources. So, if a lit cigarette is left unattended and comes into contact with your furniture, dangerous fumes may be produced before the fire starts and this will be immediately detected by this type.
- Ionization smoke detector – this type is equipped with radioactive material, which is used to ionize the air that will allow current to move between two plates that are electrically-charged. If smoke goes inside the detection chamber where the plates are found, the flow of ions will be interrupted and the current produced will be lessened. When this happens, the smoke detector will start beeping.
Unlike the photoelectric type, this one is much slower to detect smoke but faster to detect the presence of flames. Unfortunately, they are also more prone to false alarms, especially when you are cooking.
- Combination or Dual Sensor type – this literally combines the features of the photoelectric and ionization smoke detectors. It is able to detect both smoke and fire faster, but it is also prone to the detection errors of the ionization type.
Most argue that the best type of smoke detector at home is the photoelectric type, since it detects smoke the fastest and is not prone to making false alarms, unlike the ionization type. House fires typically start first with smoke or smoldering, which usually last for some time, before the big fires start. From this, you can see why experts generally recommend the photoelectric type.
Where to Install Smoke Detectors
Many homeowners make the mistake of having only one smoke detector in their homes, believing that this is already sufficient. This will only apply if you live in a small studio unit. Otherwise, it is not sufficient for your entire household.
The recommendation of the NFPA is that smoke detectors must be installed in the following areas:
- One for every bedroom
- One outside the sleeping area or every hallway
- On every floor
- Close to staircases, including near the bottom landing going to the basement and near the top of the stairs of each floor
- In the basement
- Near rooms where fire hazards are present, such as fireplaces and kitchens, but make sure it is at least 10 feet away from these fire sources. A 20-feet distance is ideal
- In the living room and other large spaces
All spaces and rooms where fire can be found should not have smoke alarms to prevent them from being triggered unnecessarily, hence the recommended distance of at least ten feet. In these rooms, a fire extinguisher is much more important to be placed.
Proper installation requires it to be mounted high up on the wall or somewhere on the ceiling, since smoke goes up. If it is to be installed on the ceiling, it should not be placed at the highest part but at least 4 inches below it. The don’ts of installing smoke alarms include painting over them and installing them near windows, ventilation systems, doors, and heating and air-conditioning ducts.
Reasons Why Your Smoke Alarm Keeps Going Off but There is No Fire
Have you ever experienced your smoke alarm randomly going off, yet there is no smoke and you also believe there is no fire anywhere? If so, you might wonder what set off your alarm. It may even cause people to panic, since people would think there really is a fire somewhere.
From our earlier discussion, you may recall that fire alarms are not immune to errors; they are also capable of making false alarms – literally. In fact, this is a common problem that a lot of homeowners complain about. But why does this happen? The most common reasons are the following:
- Presence of dust – the ionization type of smoke detector is the one that frequently experiences false alarms due to dust. When excessive dust gets inside the smoke alarm’s detection chamber, it can mistake it as smoke and trigger the alarm. If your smoke alarm won’t stop beeping, too much dust inside may be the reason.
- Outdated fire alarm – there is a reason why we advise homeowners to change their smoke alarms after a decade of use – experts agree that 10 years is the magic number and smoke alarms become outdated and work less efficiently beyond that time. Even if your unit is well-maintained, there is a higher chance of it failing as soon as it reaches the ten-year mark.
- Kitchen or fireplace smoke is detected – if you don’t want to hear incessant chirping from your alarm, you should never place it inside the kitchen or in the same room as your fireplace. The smoke produced while you are cooking or when your fireplace is lit is guaranteed to set off your smoke alarm.
- Burnt food – even if there is no visible smoke coming from food you have left too long on the stove or toaster, they actually produce dense particles in the air that smoke alarms may detect as smoke.
- Steam – smoke alarms are not capable of distinguishing smoke and steam, so it can easily mistake steam as smoke and trigger the alarm while you are enjoying a hot bath or while boiling water for your morning coffee.
- High humidity – dense moisture particles are present if the humidity is too high, and this can also be mistaken by a smoke alarm as actual smoke, just like dust and steam.
- Batteries are running low – some smoke alarms feature the ability to make noise when the batteries need replacing. The chirping or other sounds they make can be mistaken as the smoke alarm going off.
- Strong chemical smells – smells normally will not trigger smoke alarms, unless they are too strong. The smell of paint, bleach, ammonia, and other chemicals can fool your smoke alarm into thinking that what it detects is smoke and not strong chemical smells.
- Insects have settled inside – it is not unusual to find critters that have made smoke alarms as their home. After all, it looks like an ideal nesting ground for them. If they settled inside the detection chamber of your unit, don’t be surprised to hear your smoke alarm going off as often as every 10 minutes or so.
- Issues with the current load – wired smoke alarms are sometimes set off when you use appliances that have heavy current loads in the same circuit, especially when there are issues with how it is wired in terms of its proximity to a circuit box. Qualified electricians know how to properly wire smoke alarms to avoid this conflict.
- Unexpected power interruptions – power suddenly going off then back on may sometimes cause smoke alarms to make noise immediately when the power is supplied back to it. If this happens, it will normally happen just for a short time.
- Obstructions – something as simple as not removing the safety or pull tabs of new smoke alarms may cause it to make noise for no reason. Other debris inside the detection chamber may also trigger the alarm.
- There is actually smoke from a fire that you have yet to discover – interconnected alarms will sound off simultaneously when one of them detects smoke. This may be the case for yours and the smoke is coming from some other room where no one is present.
Nuisance alarm or not, it is always important to identify what set off your smoke alarm in the first place. Always prioritize the safety of the people inside your home before investigating the cause of your smoke alarm going off.
Smoke Alarm Maintenance
While smoke alarms are generally low maintenance, it doesn’t mean you should not regularly check on its condition. This is actually the main reason why fatalities occur in house fires where smoke alarms are present – homeowners neglect checking their condition and fail to see when the batteries installed have run out or the unit itself has already broken down.
Professionals recommend getting your smoke alarms checked out every month, or more often than that. To check if it works, you only need to press the test button on your smoke alarm, which is a standard feature for all smoke alarms regardless of type. Newer models have the ability to do a self-test regularly. The alarm should sound after this test is done.
Regular cleaning is also a must so that the sensors of your unit will be in great condition. It is quite normal for dust and other contaminants to settle around smoke alarms, so make sure to get it regularly cleaned out by someone who knows how to do it properly. Improper cleaning may affect its sensors.
If you want to check out the wirings, don’t attempt to do so unless you are qualified; get a professional to inspect it for you. Amateurs with little to no knowledge of the wirings and the smoke alarm systems may do more harm than good, especially if you use interconnected alarms.
Like we mentioned, insects can also make your smoke alarms as their nesting place. They can go inside the gaps of the detection chamber and settle inside. To avoid this, insect repellants may be sprayed around the smoke alarm, but never directly on it because the performance may be compromised.
Is Your Smoke Alarm Too Sensitive? Make Sure it Doesn’t Go Off When You’re Cooking
You’ll know when your smoke alarm is too sensitive when it goes off for seemingly no reason at all, despite keeping it well-maintained. While this is a good thing, because it just proves that your smoke alarm is working properly, you will eventually consider it as an annoyance when it keeps going off whenever you’re cooking.
Most homeowners who use battery-operated fire alarms will often just remove the batteries of the smoke alarm nearest to the kitchen to stop it from beeping every single time. While this is an effective solution, this can possibly make you forget to put the batteries back to your fire alarm after cooking, making it not work at all and especially when needed.
If you are due to change your smoke alarm, make sure to get the one that allows you to set the sensitivity level of your alarm or temporarily disable it and will automatically reactivate after a set time. You can choose to install this only in the areas where there are fire sources, such as your kitchen and rooms with fireplaces.
Some homeowners also tend to take the DIY route, installing various contraptions to lessen false alarms on their units. These include installing makeshift hoods to shield away smoke coming from the stove, covers for smoke alarms, or using fans to keep away smoke from the smoke alarms.
A more permanent solution is to get it installed some distance away from those areas. Don’t install smoke alarms in the same room as your appliances that use fire to keep them from being triggered unnecessarily. Place fire extinguishers instead in those rooms, because fires will only start when you use those appliances and you’ll likely see the fire first before your smoke alarm senses it.
But if you really want to install a smoke alarm near your kitchen for your peace of mind, make sure to use the right type. In this case, the photoelectric type of smoke alarm would give you the least amount of false positives.
Want to Replace Your Smoke Detector? Consider These 4 Brands
There will come a time when you’ll have to change your smoke alarm, and when the time comes, you’ll likely have a hard time choosing which one to get due to the numerous options available for you. If the time for you to choose is now, we can help you with that. Here are the most recommended smoke alarms at present:
- BRK 7020B – with a price tag not exceeding $50, this is an ideal choice for homeowners who want a photoelectric smoke alarm. While it needs to be hardwired, it is also equipped with a battery for backup whenever power interruptions occur, assuring you of your safety from fires even with no power at home. It will also alert you when the battery is running low.
This model can also be interconnected with other smoke alarms of the same manufacturer. You can even interconnect it with up to 18 compatible alarms and silence all of them by pressing the silence button on this model.
If the BRK 7020B detects smoke, its built-in safety lights will light up and if interconnected with other alarms, only the one that detected the smoke will flash its LED light to indicate that it was the alarm that was triggered. It also has their signature OptiPath 360 Technology that lets you directly access its sensor and allows smoke to enter and reach the sensor much faster.
Wiring this model may not be possible in homes that use older types of wiring, but you can quickly get in touch with their customer service by phone or email, as well as through online support for inquiries. The built-in light is also not replaceable, but it is under warranty, so you can contact them for a possible replacement should it stop working before the warranty is up.
The BRK 7020B has a fairly small size, with a diameter of just 5” and a depth of 2.3”. The alarm also has a standard warranty of 10 years.
- Kidde KN-COSM-BA/IBA Alarms – what makes these Kidde smoke alarm models stand out is the fact that they also come with carbon monoxide detectors, which make them 2-in-1 devices. In fact, it will even indicate if the carbon monoxide level detected has reached 100 ppm or more. Note that 36 ppm is already a cause for concern.
They are also equipped with silence and test/reset buttons and their alerts are in the form of beeping, flashing lights, and voice alerts that will indicate if carbon monoxide or smoke from a fire is detected. The silence button will help you identify if it is a false alarm or not, as it prevents your unit from activating for 10 minutes. If it is triggered after this time, it is highly likely that it is not a false alarm.
These two Kidde smoke alarm models basically have the same features, except the -BA model, priced at almost $40, is battery-powered and uses three AA batteries, and the almost $60-priced -IBA model needs hardwiring but comes with batteries for backup power. The -IBA model also lets you connect it with up to 24 compatible smoke alarms manufactured by Kidde. In terms of warranty, the battery-powered -BA model is covered for 7 years, and the -IBA hardwired model comes with a 10-year warranty.
Although hardwired models are generally more preferred, the -BA model has a slightly higher rating in terms of customer feedback compared to the -IBA model. However, both models do not come with emergency safety lights. They both have a depth of 1.7” and a diameter of 5.75”.
- First Alert BRK 3120B – if you’re looking for units with dual sensors, you should include this model in your list of options. Like the other BRK smoke alarm on our list, you can also directly access its sensor because of its OptiPath 360 technology. This is another hardwired smoke alarm that can be interconnected with up to 18 First Alarm heat and smoke alarms, as well as carbon monoxide detectors.
Two silence buttons are available for the First Alert BRK 3120B model, with one to silence the alert when the batteries are low and the other for the alarm itself. It is also equipped with LED lights that support these features.
A possible issue you may face when you get it installed is incompatibility, since your existing wirings may not work with this smoke alarm, especially if you are replacing a very old unit. It also does not have an emergency safety light installed.
This is also another sub-$50 smoke alarm that also measures 5” in terms of diameter and 2.3” in terms of depth. Note that the First Alert BRK 3120B also comes with a standard warranty of 10 years.
- 2nd generation Nest Protect – at $99, this smoke alarm is the priciest in the list, but for a good reason. The Nest Protect features a unique “split-spectrum” sensor, which features a blue LED sensor and the conventional photoelectric sensor instead of a combination of ionization and photoelectric sensors. It acts similarly to a dual sensor type of smoke alarm, as it detects both fast fires and smoldering fires, but eliminates the proneness of the ionization type for false alarms.
The Nest Protect not only senses smoke and fire, but it is also capable of detecting carbon monoxide. This particular model features humidity and heat sensors, which lessens the possibility of false alarms occurring, and it is supposedly the only model currently out in the market that has them. It has a 5.3” x 5.3” dimension and a depth of 1.5”.
Its LED lights will automatically activate when it detects various conditions, and the built-in voice alerts will indicate the type of situation it detected. The Nest Protect also has the capability to be interconnected to other devices, specifically with 18 smoke alarms at most.
For techy homeowners, this is a great smoke alarm because it features wireless connectivity. You can get alerts and notifications, immediately stop false alarms, and check on their status and connectivity using just your phone via their dedicated Nest app. However, this is only available if you have a router that has an IPv6 support. Don’t worry if it is not compatible with your router, since the smoke alarm will still work even if it is unable to connect wirelessly to your phone.
If you need to silence it because of a false alarm, you can do either with the built-in silencing button or the option on the app. The Nest Protect comes with both battery-powered and hardwired models, which you can get at the same price and the former requiring six AA batteries to work. Like the other models, the hardwired Nest Protect is also battery-backed. Unfortunately, they only have a 2-year warranty each.
All of these models have alarms that reach 85 decibels, so it will just boil down to which features you want and the budget you have.
Hardwired Smoke Detector vs. Battery-Operated
Now that you have an idea of what are some of the highly-rated smoke detectors out in the market right now, your next dilemma will likely be this one: should you go for battery-operated ones or the hardwired models?
Battery-operated smoke detectors are ideal for homeowners that are after portability, as they can just stick them up wherever and whenever they want. It won’t be an issue if you do not have any electrical knowledge because no wiring is required. It is also much easier to maintain this type, since you only have to replace the batteries whenever it gets low, which usually takes a year on average.
Because they are independent of any electrical source, they are standalone and will work even if the power suddenly goes out. That is, if the batteries are not drained. Fortunately, they generally have sound alerts to inform you when the batteries are running low. The disadvantage is that they are standalone detectors and do not have the ability for simultaneous alerts when one of them detects smoke or fire.
Unfortunately, battery-powered alarms are more prone to failure in terms of detecting fires because negligent homeowners tend to forget to replace the batteries. How would they work if they can no longer draw power from batteries? In fact, the NFPA has even reported the following with regards to house fires reported between 2009 to 2013:
- 24% of the total number of smoke alarms that did not work during house fires were due to them having dead batteries
- Roughly 46% of the smoke alarms that failed to operate when house fires occurred had batteries that were missing or were disconnected by homeowners due to nuisance or false alarms
- Two out of three house fire-related deaths reportedly had smoke alarms that were battery powered
- Battery-powered models reportedly only worked 80% of the time
Hardwired smoke detectors used to be at a disadvantage, since they mainly rely on electricity to work. However, models nowadays are backed by batteries that serve as backup power sources when electricity goes out. This lets them work uninterruptedly until the power comes back on. The only time you will have to change their batteries is when your smoke detector has reached its end-of-life and stops working altogether.
Since hardwired smoke detectors will need to connect to your electrical system, it requires an electrician to install it. The biggest advantage of hardwired models is that they can be interconnected to models made by the same manufacturer. Once one of them is triggered when it senses fire or smoke, it will alert all other connected smoke detectors. They will simultaneously beep to inform you that there is a fire somewhere, no matter where you currently are at home.
The NFPA has also released the following statistics regarding hardwired smoke detectors during the same timeframe:
- Hardwired models have a higher rate of detecting house fires, reportedly at 94%
- Only 7% of the total number of smoke alarms that failed to operate during a house fire were hardwired, and these were mainly attributed to power interruptions and disconnected units
- Interconnected smoke detectors were triggered in 53% of those house fires and they were able to warn homeowners in 26% of the total house fire instances
We recommend that you go for a battery-powered smoke detector if you will be using it in a small home, such as a studio-type apartment. It is a more cost-effective option that requires less maintenance, except for regularly changing batteries.
But if your home consists of multiple rooms, hardwired models are your best bet, primarily because of their interconnectivity with other compatible smoke detectors and despite your having to spend a bit more for their installation and maintenance.
Why Does Your Smoke Alarm Keep Going Off? Get the Help of an Electrician
If your smoke alarm keeps beeping and won’t stop, and you’re 100% positive that there are no smoke or fires in your home, you better get your unit checked out by an electrician. It is likely that there is an issue with your unit.
Only qualified professionals can make the right judgment call if the problem with your unit is a simple matter or it involves much more complicated matters, such as electrical connections for hardwired units. A licensed electrician will not only repair your smoke alarm but he or she will also make the necessary maintenance work to ensure that your unit will work well within its expected lifespan.
If you need to get in touch with possible contractors to solve your issues with your smoke alarm, use our service. We will connect you with only the best professionals nearest you, and who will provide you with the best quotes and value for the job you need. And best of all, you get these quotes for free without being required to commit to any of the contractors who give them to you!