Smoke Alarms: An Overlooked Emergency Prep

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Smoke Alarms: An Overlooked Emergency Prep

When it comes to emergency preparedness, many of us subconsciously focus on what seems exciting, such as flashy new gear and training classes. This ca

When it comes to emergency preparedness, many of us subconsciously focus on what seems exciting, such as flashy new gear and training classes. This can lead us to overlook more mundane forms of preparedness that can be equally essential. A good insurance policy is extremely helpful for recovering from a disaster, but unlike fancy knives and overland vehicles, nobody wants to see you showing off your coverage or deductible on social media. Similarly, smoke alarms (a.k.a. smoke detectors) are an emergency preparedness tool every house has, but one that we rarely think about… unless one is beeping at 3 a.m. due to a low battery. Read on for some considerations when testing and replacing your home’s smoke alarms.

Why Should You Care About Smoke Alarms?

This topic was brought up among our staff when Concealment editor Dave Merrill tested his home’s smoke alarms. To his surprise, one of them failed testing, despite there being no previous sign that it was faulty. With home fires causing an average of 2,620 deaths, 11,070 fire injuries, and $7.3 billion in property damage each year according to The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), this is something that should be taken very seriously. For more perspective, it’s the sixth most common injury-related cause of death worldwide, ranked between drowning and poisoning.

Smoke Alarm Testing and Replacement

Photo courtesy of the U.S. Fire Administration

NFPA says that smoke alarms should be tested each month. We recommend marking your calendar so you don’t forget to check them on a regular basis. All it takes is a stepladder and a few minutes of your time.

Although many of us don’t think about it, smoke alarms are a limited-lifespan item. NFPA guidelines recommend replacing your smoke alarms 10 years after the date of manufacture (usually at least a few months earlier than the date of installation). So, if you’ve been living in the same house for more than 9 years, you should definitely start thinking about replacing your alarms.

Alarm Types: Ionization, Photoelectric, or Both?

So, maybe you’re getting ready to replace your smoke alarms, or you just want to make sure the ones you already have are up to par. Did you know there are two main types of smoke alarms, each with varying performance? These two types are ionization and photoelectric alarms, which are explained in the graphic below from NFPA:

In simple terms…

  • Ionization alarms are triggered when smoke interferes with the flow of electricity between two plates, and tend to respond faster to the smoke produced by flaming fires (rapidly-burning items).
  • Photoelectric alarms detect smoke particles between an LED and a light sensor, and tend to respond faster to smoldering fires (slowly-burning items).

NFPA explains, “For each type of smoke alarm, the advantage it provides may be critical to life safety in some fire situations. Home fatal fires, day or night, include a large number of smoldering fires and a large number of flaming fires. You can not predict the type of fire you may have in your home or when it will occur. … For best protection, it is recommended both (ionization and photoelectric) technologies be used in homes. In addition to individual ionization and photoelectric alarms, combination alarms that include both technologies in a single device are available.”

The U.S. Fire Administration echoes this sentiment: “The USFA recommends that every home and place where people sleep be equipped with either (a) both ionization and photoelectric smoke alarms, or (b) dual sensor smoke alarms (which contain both ionization and photoelectric smoke sensors).” USFA’s statement adds, “The location of a smoke alarm within a home may be more important than the type of smoke alarm present, depending on the location of a fire. The USFA recommends that users follow the manufacturer’s guidance on the recommended location of smoke alarms in a home.”

More Home Fire Preparedness Tips

Smoke alarms are only one aspect of preparing your home and your family for a fire. Check out some of our related articles about fire preparedness below:


Prepare Now:

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