The choice you make when choosing a smoke alarm for your home can be a life or death decision. The latest research (NBC News) shows that 90% of homes have ionization technology smoke detectors rather than the more expensive photoelectric technology detectors. When these models were tested, it took twice as long for the ionization models to sound the alarm compared to the photoelectric units. The lag time reported was 20 minutes – a long time. Time is one thing that we do not have enough of in a fire where seconds count. You may know that about 70% of the deaths in residential fires are a result of smoke inhalation. We also know that detectors are essential in warning us of fire. In light of this dramatic news story, what should you do?
First, some statistics. According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), non-working detectors exist in 20% of the homes with alarms installed. As a home inspector, I can tell you from experience that this statistic is on the low side. Every third home I inspected had non-working fire detectors. Over half of the nation's residential fire deaths occurred in homes without any detectors at all, and the overall risk of dying in a home without working smoke detectors is twice as high as the risk in homes with working detectors.
What types of smoke detectors are available and what type should you have in your home? Ionization smoke detectors are designed to sense fast flaming and fast moving fires. These particles may be invisible to the eye. This type of detector will go off quickly in the high heat of a flash fire and a fire that has reliably little smoke associated with it. A photoelectric smoke detector detects visible particles, as you would have in a fire that has barely begun, but is producing smoke. An example of this would be a cigarette falling into upholstery and smoldering.
What to do? First, if you already have detectors installed, take a look at them. Write down the identifying information and look up the type (ionization or photoelectric, or both) on the internet or take the information to your favorite home improvement store so that they can identify it for you. If you discover that your detectors are only the ionization type, I recommend that you purchase additional detectors of the photoelectric type to supplement your current detectors. It is also possible to purchase detectors that have both technologies in one unit. Follow the directions for usage, testing, and maintenance. This includes periodic testing (test button), replacing batteries annually, and keeping vents clear. You can also purchase detectors that are completely battery operated and communicate wirelessly with all the others so that when one goes off, they all go off.
If your home does not have any smoke detectors, I recommend you make it a priority to purchase dual technology models (start at $ 18) and get the wireless inter-communication models if you have a little more money to spend. Install smoke alerts on every floor of your home in hallways outside bedrooms, inside bedrooms, in other main hallways, and just outside the kitchen area. Taking these simple steps now will afford you peace of mind and provide an extra margin of safety for you and your loved ones.