A smoke detector is an essential purchase for your home, not only for your own safety, but for the safety of those you live with, your pets, roommates or family. Buying a smoke detector—or detectors—is more than just grabbing one at the hardware store and slapping it on the wall. There are several key factors to consider, including detection type, power source, placement and lifespan. Pronto’s Smoke Detector Buying Guide will help you determine which smoke detector is best for you.
All smoke detectors use either ionization, photoelectricity or both to detect fires. While ionization detectors are best at sensing high-flaming fires, photoelectric alarms are best at detecting smoky fires. Experts recommend having both types in your home or one dual detector that uses both detection types in a single device.
Any smoke detector you buy should be approved by Underwriters Laboratories (UL). Added features to consider include interconnectivity that sounds all smoke detectors if one goes off, a remote control and recorded messages that may be better for children and teens.
If your home is wired for it, you can connect smoke detectors to your home’s power source. If not, it is cheapest and easiest to use battery-powered alarms. It’s critical to remember to change the batteries twice a year, either at daylight savings time or on a family member’s birthday.
You should have at least one smoke detector on each habitable level of your home. If you only need one smoke detector, it will be best to buy a dual smoke detector. If you need several, remember that ionization alarms work best near kitchens, bathrooms, garages and storage closets (where high-flaming fires are likely) and photoelectric alarms work best near bedrooms, living rooms and clothes closets (where smoky fires occur).
While you should replace you smoke detector every 10 years, some come with extra-long shelf lives that are guaranteed to work beyond the recommended 10-year period. This provides a little extra security if you can’t remember the exact year you purchased your smoke detector.
A feature that provides power to a smoke detector wired into home electricity during a blackout or power interruption.
A smoke detector that incorporates both ionization and photoelectric technology to sniff out the greatest range of fires.
A light that turns on when a smoke detector sounds. This feature is recommended for windowless halls and stairways.
A button that lets you turn down the smoke detector’s alarm if it is triggered by bathroom steam, the kitchen broiler or other nonthreatening sources.
A system that uses radio waves to trigger all the smoke detectors in a home if one sounds.
A feature that lets a smoke detector sense the difference between a false alarm caused by cooking fumes or shower steam and a real fire.
A type of smoke detector technology that uses a small amount of radioactive material to detect high-flaming fires.
A smoke detector that uses a beam of light and a sensor to detect smoky fires by sounding when the light is interrupted.
A feature that allows a smoke detector’s alarm to be replaced by a prerecorded message. Some studies suggest that these smoke detectors are more effective at waking children and teens.
Smoke detectors come in two basic types: ionization and photoelectric, also known as optical. Most experts recommend using a dual smoke detector that combines both detection systems.
Ionization smoke detectors contain a small amount of radioactive material that ionizes the air within the device and triggers the alarm when the airflow is interrupted. These alarms are best at detecting high-flaming fires caused by flammable or combustible liquids (such as gasoline or acetone), paper or electricity. Ionization smoke detectors are usually battery-powered and are the least expensive type of alarm, with different models ranging from $7-$10.
Photoelectric smoke detectors use a beam of light and a sensor that triggers the alarm when particles interrupt the beam. These alarms respond to smoky, flameless, slow-starting fires, such as those caused by smoldering clothes, bedding, upholstery or curtains. Photoelectric smoke detectors are more expensive than ionization detectors, with prices averaging about $30.
It is best to buy a smoke detector that contains both ionization detection technology as well as photoelectric detection technology for places where both flaming and smoky fires are possible. These “dual” smoke detectors are often more expensive than single detection alarms, but it is more cost effective to buy a dual smoke detector than it is to purchase two separate units. Dual smoke detector prices start at around $40.
Combination smoke and carbon monoxide detectors are also available. These types of detectors track carbon monoxide, a clear, odorless, poisonous gas produced in homes by things like heating equipment and stoves. At high levels, carbon monoxide can poison a person, potentially resulting in death. Combination carbon monoxide and smoke detectors usually use ionization to detect smoke and should be supplemented with a photoelectric smoke detector.
Any smoke detector you purchase should be UL listed. This certifies that the smoke detector has been tested and approved by Underwriters Laboratories, a nonprofit organization that inspects and rates electrical and fire safety equipment according to recognized standards.
Some models can be connected to other smoke detectors in your home. This feature is called interconnectivity, and when an alarm is triggered in one room of a house, all the other smoke detectors in the house will also be triggered. The obvious benefit is that everyone in the house is warned when there is a fire; however, there are some setup limitations depending on power supply. If you live in a condo or an apartment, you probably won’t need a smoke detector with this feature.
Remote-control smoke detectors save the hassle of climbing up to the ceiling when you want to test the batteries or turn off the detector after a false alarm. For windowless hallways and bedrooms, consider a smoke detector with an exit light that illuminates the way to safety.
If you have small children or teens, consider a smoke detector that allows you to record a message that plays instead of the traditional beeps. According to a recent study published in Pediatrics, children between the ages of 6 to 12 are more likely to wake up to a recording of a parent’s voice than to a smoke detector’s screeching.
For some installations, look for a smoke detector with a feature called Intelligent Sensing. This differentiates nonthreatening conditions, such as bathroom steam or small amounts of kitchen smoke, from real emergencies and also runs a daily, automatic self-check test.
The two main ways of powering your smoke detector are batteries or the household’s power source. Battery-powered smoke detectors are more common and are much easier to install. However, you risk having the batteries fail without your knowledge unless you change them twice a year. To prevent this, change all your smoke detector batteries at daylight savings time or routinely change them on a family member’s birthday. Ionization smoke detectors have the added benefit of sounding when the battery starts to fail.
Smoke detectors that are connected to the household’s power source can be more reliable. Look for smoke detectors that are backed up by a battery power source, in case the household power fails—a common occurrence in electrical fires that start near the main or fuse box. A common power source also allows smoke detectors to be interconnected. You’ll need an electrician to help you install hard-wired smoke detectors, and the cost of installation could run up to $1,000, depending on your home’s wiring.
A general rule of thumb is to have one smoke detector on each habitable level of your home. If you only need one smoke detector in your home, a dual detector will cover you for all types of fires. If you need several smoke detectors, it might not be necessary to have a dual alarm in all locations.
Since ionization smoke detectors are best at detecting high-flaming fires, they are best placed near storage closets, garages, kitchens and bathrooms. Never place these smoke detectors in the kitchen or bathroom, as cooking or hot water steam could set off a false alarm. Photoelectric smoke detectors, best at detecting smoky fires, should be placed near bedrooms, living rooms and clothes closets.
While every home should have at least one dual smoke detector in a central location, smoke detectors in other spots can be suited to the type of fire that is more likely to occur at that location. Tailoring your smoke detector placement this way can help save money.
The National Fire Protection Agency recommends replacing your smoke detector every 10 years. Individual models promise a different shelf life, with some smoke detectors guaranteeing longer-than-average lives. In the all-too-common event that you fail to purchase a new smoke detector after 10 years of use, these longer-life alarms could give you a little extra leeway.