Smoke Detectors

Fire Safety Basics

A working smoke alarm can give your family the early warning they need to get out of your home.
In addition to a home fire escape plan, a working smoke alarm can give your family the early warning they need to get out of your home safely if there is a fire.. Photo courtesy of

Having smoke detectors in your home should be a no-brainer. After all, the consequences of not getting your family out of your burning home in time is pretty obvious, and smoke detectors are fairly inexpensive, readily available, and easy to install.

Smoke Detector Statistics

The importance of smoke detectors make the results of a 2008 phone survey easy to understand. It found that 96% of households in the United States reported that they had at least one smoke detector.

Unfortunately, the results of that smoke detector survey isn't corroborated by the fact that smoke detectors aren't found in just over 30% of home fires.

More smoke detector statistics:

  • About two-thirds of the deaths in home fires are in homes that either didn't have a smoke detector (40%) or didn't have a working smoke detector (23%).
  • Just over two-thirds of people report having battery-only smoke detectors, even though hard-wired smoke detectors with a battery backup are thought to work better and are more likely to sound an alarm during a fire.
  • Many people don't know that they should replace their smoke detector every ten years.
  • Most smoke detectors don't work because the smoke detector battery is dead or has been removed or disconnected.

Smoke Detector Tips

Fires are one of the leading causes of death in children. In 2007, 477 children died in fires, almost all of them home fires, which makes it important to learn about fire safety and prevention, with smoke detectors being a key part of your home fire safety plan.

You usually can't just put one smoke detector in your home and think you have done all you can do, though.

To keep your family safe, you should:

  • Install a smoke detector in every bedroom of your home and in the hall that leads to one or two bedrooms, and make sure there is at least one on each floor of your home, even in your basement. You should usually avoid putting a smoke detector in an unheated attic and garage.
  • Interconnect all of your smoke detectors, a feature on most newer hard-wired smoke detectors and wireless smoke detectors. Interconnected smoke detectors will all sound an alarm when any one of them detects smoke or a fire.
  • Choose a hard-wired smoke detector that has a battery backup, so that it will work even if the power goes out. Hard-wired smoke detectors are reported to be more reliable in fires than those that are powered by batteries alone.
  • Get a smoke detector that has strobe lights that flash and/or vibrates if there is someone with hearing loss in your home.
  • Be sure your smoke detectors are installed properly, either in the center of a ceiling (although away from ceiling fans), or on the wall, at least 6 to 12 inches below the ceiling, and away from air vents, windows, or other high air flow areas.
  • Choose a combination or dual photoelectric and ionization smoke detector, since each type responds best to different types of fires, or install each type of smoke detector in your home and interconnect them. In general, ionization smoke detectors are best for detecting flaming fires, while photoelectric smoke detectors are best for detecting smoldering fires.
  • Replace your smoke detector batteries at least once a year and especially when you hear the warning signal that the battery is low. It might be even better to replace the batteries whenever you change your clock at the beginning or end of Daylight Saving Time.
  • Test your smoke detector each month and replace it if it doesn't work or if it is already 8 to 10 years old.
  • Regularly clean your smoke detector according to your smoke detector's instructions, which usually involves vacuuming around the outside of the smoke detector when you change the batteries.
  • Move any smoke detector that causes too many nuisance alarms -- for example, if it routinely goes off when someone is cooking.
  • Consider getting a smoke detector that includes a recordable voice announcement, which some experts think may be more helpful in waking children versus standard beeping smoke detectors.

Since your smoke detectors are simply early warning signals of a fire in your home, to be safe you also need a good home fire escape plan so that you can take advantage of that early warning and extra time and quickly get your family out of your home.

Best Smoke Detectors

Although there are many brands and types of smoke detectors, the best smoke detector is going to be one that is properly installed and has certain features, including that it:

  • is hard-wired with a battery backup.
  • can be interconnected with all of the other smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors in your home.
  • has dual photoelectric and ionization sensors (although it may be best to install an interconnected photoelectric smoke detector near the kitchen and near any bathrooms, since steam may trigger false alarms in the ionization sensor of dual sensor and ionization smoke detectors).
  • has a mute or hush button to temporarily silence false alarms.
  • includes a compliance label from a recognized testing laboratory, such as the Underwriters Laboratories (UL) and/or National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).

At this time, the only smoke detector that seems to have all of those features is the Kidde PI2010 hard-wired, dual sensor smoke alarm.

If you have a home security system, you may even be able to add smoke detectors and heat sensors to your security system so that your security monitoring company can notify you and the fire department if there is a fire in your home.

Smoke Detectors vs. Smoke Alarms

It is easy to get confused by all of the terms used when talking about smoke detectors, such as dual sensors, interconnected, ionization, and so on.

One thing that shouldn't be confusing is the difference between smoke detectors and smoke alarms. The two terms are often used interchangeably, but technically they are different. A smoke alarm actually consists of a smoke detector, which senses the smoke, and an alarm-sounding device to alert you that it detected smoke nearby. In addition to the smoke detector sensor in smoke alarms, separate smoke detector sensors are available that can be connected to fire control panels or other alarm systems.

However, practically speaking, if you go to the store to buy a smoke detector or smoke alarm, you will be getting the same thing.


National Fire Protection Association. Smoke Alarm Basics. Accessed October 2010.

U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Your Home Fire Safety Checklist. Accessed October 2010.

National Fire Protection Association. "U.S. Experience with Smoke Alarms and Other Fire Detection/Alarm Equipment" by Marty Ahrens, September 2009.

National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. 10 Leading Causes of Unintentional Injury Deaths, United States, 2007.

Continue Reading