Home & Garden

This one home safety product can protect you—and your family

If you haven't tested your smoke detector recently, now's the time

Smoke detector with smoke and a family in the background Credit: Getty Images / Sturti

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When it comes to safety, you can never be too vigilant. In the event of an emergency at home, it is critical to be prepared ahead of time with the proper tools and protection.

A smoke detector is one of the most important preventative measures to have in your home. You may have more overt concerns in your day-to-day, but taking the time to evaluate and maintain the efficacy your smoke detector and even putting it on your regular list of to-dos should be a priority. According to the National Fire Protection Association, the risk of dying in a reported home fire is cut in half in homes with working smoke alarms.

Here’s what you need to know about maintaining your smoke detector, including common issues to look out for and when it may be time to call in an expert.

Smoke detectors: You’ve got two options

What kind
Credit: First Alert / Kidde

The USFA recommends either having both ionization and photoelectric smoke detectors, or a dual-sensor smoke detector.


Homeowner or not, you may not realize that there are two different types of smoke detectors on the market.

The first type, a photoelectric smoke detector uses a light sensor to detect smoke.

The second type is called an ionization detector, and it uses small amounts of radioactive material to ionize the air inside an electrified detection chamber. This means that smoke in the air will disrupt the ionized charge and set off the alarm.

You should be concerned with their differences and what type of smoke each can detect. According to the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA), ionization alarms tend to respond faster to smoke produced by a flaming fire, while photoelectric alarms tend to respond faster to a slow, smoldering fire.

For this reason, the USFA highly recommends dual sensor smoke detectors, which uses both types of sensors in order to maximize protection in the event that one of its sensors detects imminent danger before the other.

Make sure your smoke detectors are installed correctly

Installation
Credit: Getty Images / AndreyPopov

When it comes to smoke detectors, Dawson recommends installation from an expert, as electrical dangers can come into play when doing it on your own.


Incorrectly installed smoke detectors are a common issue. Unfortunately, this can lead to unprotected spots in your home and/or faulty detectors.

To protect your entire home with smoke detectors, you should have several different devices to completely cover your household.

Mark Dawson, chief operating officer at Mister Sparky, says that smoke alarms “should be installed in every bedroom, at the top of each stairwell, and on every level of the home.”

Along with this, smoke detectors should be interconnected. That way, if one alarm goes off, the rest will also go off, alerting your entire household of a potential fire. You can buy interconnected smoke detectors, or hire a professional electrician to connect the smoke detectors you already have.

Lastly, be careful about where you place your smoke detectors—Dawson says areas like showers and laundry rooms can result in moisture damage to the detectors over time.

Test the smoke detector once a month

Testing
Credit: Getty Images / Gregory_DUBUS

Testing your smoke detector is easy—just be sure to keep up with a schedule if you think you'll forget to test it every month.

To make sure your smoke detectors are in good shape, you’ll need to check up on all the ones in your home on a regular basis.

Dawson says that while photoelectric and ionization detectors work differently, they are tested the same way. He recommends testing your detectors once a month. It’s quick and easy—simply pushing the “test” button and waiting for it to respond.

If your detector is not responding, check the batteries to make sure they’re still good. If not, replace them as soon as possible. If this isn’t a battery issue, it may be time for a replacement.

Smoke/Carbon
Credit: Reviewed / Betsey Goldwasser

Go for a smoke and carbon monoxide detector in one—you'll only have to check up on one rather than several types of detectors.


While you’re at it, make it habitual to test other types of alarms in your home in one sweep, including carbon monoxide detectors and security systems. Combination smoke and carbon monoxide can save you the trouble of having to check multiple detectors.

Make the pesky chirps and beeps stop

Chirps and beeps
Credit: Getty Images / AndreyPopov

Hear that annoying beeping noise? Get your extra batteries handy.

It’s common to hear chirps and beeps coming from your smoke detector. While this might be annoying more than anything, the beeps typically signal that the detector’s batteries are running low and need to be replaced.

Dawson says, “Instead of taking batteries out of your detector to silence it, immediately replace them.” Keep lithium batteries available so you’re ready to go as this issue arises.

With that said, there can be other reasons for a smoke detector’s beeping and chirping. Dust buildup can be to blame as it collects in your detectors, triggering a faulty alarm or no alarm at all when the real emergency comes.

To prevent this from happening, the next time you deep clean your home, clean your smoke detectors. Remove the smoke detector from the wall or ceiling, then wipe the front and back with a dry cloth. Use a bottle of compressed air to clean in the cracks you may not be able to reaach.

If your smoke detectors keep going off for no reason, this could mean a number of things. Placement right by the stove, grill, or other areas that can get smoky from time to time can result in frequent false detections.

“You should install your alarms at least 20 feet from appliances like furnaces or ovens,” says Dawson. “[Appliances] produce combustion particles that could set off false alarms.”

Frequent false alarms can also be thanks to chemicals that are released in the air—this includes anything from aerosols to paint fumes. If there are chemical fumes in the home, be sure to properly ventilate it, then reset the smoke detector once it clears out.

When to retire your smoke detector

Like any other appliance or detector in your home, smoke detectors will need to be retired and replaced. The National Fire Protection Association recommends replacing smoke detectors after 10 years, no matter their condition.

Along with this information, be sure to keep a close eye on the expiration date, as this can give you a clue to when you’ll need to replace the detector. You can check this by removing the smoke detector and looking for the date on the back.

When it’s time to call in an expert

Expert
Credit: Getty Images / ronstik

An expert can help you beyond just a smoke detector installation, including advice on the best placement of the detectors in your home.

While testing and troubleshooting smoke detectors can very well be done at home, some jobs pose some higher risks that you may want to be handled by a professional.

For installing a brand new wire smoke detector, leave that to a professional. “There are many pitfalls to trying to do this yourself including shock hazards, difficulty in running the wiring, and hooking the system correctly into a power source,” says Dawson.

From there, an electrician will also be able to recommend the best placement for the new detectors, along with a plan for maintenance and future replacements.

If you’re unable to successfully troubleshoot a smoke detector problem on your own, it’s best to find a local electrician who will be able to properly evaluate the situation at hand.


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