Smoke Alarm Safety

Smoke Alarm Safety: Don’t Disarm The Messenger

There are many causes of home fire related deaths including electrical fires, ignition of upholstered furniture, or unattended cooking. The common denominator underlying the majority of these tragedies is the lack of smoke alarms or smoke alarms that don’t work. According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), three out of five home fire deaths occur in homes with no smoke alarms, or non-functional smoke alarms.
NFPA notes that when home fires occur, people in homes without smoke alarms are more than twice as likely to die as those in homes with working smoke alarms.  In house fires where the smoke alarms did not sound, it was discovered that half of them had missing or disconnected batteries. Learning how smoke alarms work, how to properly install and maintain them can help save lives.

How Smoke Alarms Work

Smoke alarms fall into two categories: ionization detectors and photoelectric detectors.
When smoke enters the chambers of an ionization detecting smoke alarm, it disrupts the ionization process and triggers the alarm. Although perfectly safe when installed in your home, the nature of some components inside an ionic smoke detector require appropriate disposal. Never throw an ionic detector directly into the trash. Instead, call the waste management service or the manufacturer of the ionic smoke alarm for proper disposal instructions in your area.
Photoelectric smoke alarms are simpler in design. When smoke enters the chamber, components within the device send an electric current, triggering the alarm.
Of the two types of smoke detectors, ionic alarms are far more sensitive. Even something as mundane as steam from boiling water can trigger an ionic smoke alarm. Ionic smoke detectors also detect fast spreading, low smoke fires more easily. You can find out if your home has ionic smoke alarms by checking the back of the alarm for an engraving that says “I” or “ionic.”

Choosing a Smoke Detector

Look for smoke alarms listed with Underwriters Laboratories (UL) and if a member of your household has difficulty hearing, consider purchasing a smoke detector that produces flashing lights or vibrations in addition to a loud noise to signal an emergency.

Install Smoke Alarms in the Right Places

Everyone in your home should recognize the sound of your smoke alarm and hear it from their bedrooms. This is especially important because according to NFPA half of home fire deaths occur between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m., when most people are sleeping and more likely to be overcome by smoke before they can escape. Where you install your smoke detectors is equally important. Installation guidelines include:
  • Place smoke alarms outside each sleeping area, inside any bedroom where the door is typically shut (recommended) and on every story of the house, including the basement.
  • Install wall-mounted smoke alarms 4 to 12 inches from the ceiling, and ceiling-mounted models at least 4 inches from the nearest wall.

Properly Maintain Smoke Alarms

Smoke alarm safety only works when alarms are properly maintained. The following tips will help ensure your smoke alarms remain in proper working order:
  • Test units monthly.
  • Install new batteries immediately when the low-battery warning alarm sounds or at least once a year.
  • Clean smoke alarms regularly by vacuuming them with a brush attachment.
  • Replace smoke alarms every 10 years to achieve optimum performance.
Smoke alarms are essential to protecting the people in your house from home fires. No matter the cause of the fire or its location, properly functioning smoke alarms are there to help alert everyone to the presence of fire in time to evacuate safely. These life-saving devices are affordable, easily purchased online or in most local retail stores, and only require a few minutes of maintenance each month.
Take a few minutes today to ensure your home has the appropriate number of smoke alarms and that they are properly located and regularly tested and maintained.
Information and links from this article are provided for your convenience only. Neither references to third parties nor the provision of any link imply an endorsement or association between The Hartford and the third party or non-Hartford site, respectively. The Hartford is not responsible for and makes no representation or warranty regarding the contents, completeness or accuracy or security of any material within this article or on such sites. Your use of information and access to such non-Hartford sites is at your own risk.

Safe is the Way!

Educational and fire safety materials are available for free download.