Smoke Alarms

I’m convinced that the secret of a happy life, besides frequent naps, is how well we deal with the continuing important but tedious tasks of our life such as cleaning the house, talking to insurance agents, doing dishes and having a working smoke alarm.

There are many brands of smoke alarms for sale but there are two basic types: photoelectric and ionization alarms.  Ionization alarms sound quickly when a flaming, fast moving fire occurs and photoelectric alarms are quicker at sensing smoldering, smoky fires.  There are also combination alarms that combine ionization and photoelectric alarms, usually called a dual sensor smoke alarm.

There is some evidence from the National Institute of Standards and Technology that ionization alarms more frequently give false alarms (“burnt toast”) and that photoelectric alarms are better at detecting fast fires than ionization alarms are at detecting smoky fires.  Given my choice, I’d pick the photoelectric.

There are smoke alarms manufactured to meet the needs of people with hearing disabilities and equipped with flashing strobe lights and/or vibration (a “bed shaker”) for those who cannot hear the alarm.  The standard for the audio, for those who like to see the specs, is 3200 Hz audible at 85 dBA at 10 feet.  That’s comparable to the subway or a lawnmower.   There’s some recent research that says kids tend to sleep through the high pitch scream of the usual alarm and you can also find alarms with a speaking voice (“The house is on fire.  Get out now.”).

Because heat (and smoke) rises, alarms should be installed on the ceiling.  Your fire department recommends one at least on every level of the house.  Because some of us sleep with our bedroom door closed, it is important to have one in the bedroom, not just in the hallway.  New construction will have the alarm directly wired to the house current (with a battery backup) but in older houses like mine, they run exclusively on batteries and can be quickly installed by screwing the unit into the ceiling.

Some smoke detectors (combination detectors) will also sense carbon monoxide (CO).  You only need to worry about carbon monoxide if you have natural gas or propane (or you’re dumb enough to bring your barbecue grill or electric generator indoors).

You should test your smoke detector every month and the batteries should be replaced once a year.  Tradition suggests you replace them when Daylight Savings Time comes.  It is an easy day to remember.  The entire alarm should be replaced every 8-10 years.  If yours is directly wired to the house current, you’ll want to have this done by a licensed electrician.  I’ve looked at about a half dozen different models of smoke alarms and the most expensive was about $40.  It is a cheap investment to save a life.

While we’re at it, you’ll want at least one fire extinguisher (and be able to easily get at it in an emergency).  I suggest the ABC type.  A (anything that leaves ash aka wood and paper fires), B (anything in a barrel aka gas, oil or other flammable liquids) and C (for current aka electric fires).  These probably contain Ammonium Phosphate and, although more corrosive than other extinguishers, at least can meet all your possible needs.

Every business has an annual visit from a Fire Department inspector who ensures that there are both enough fire extinguishers (based on the type of business and square footage) and that they have gone through an annual testing and recharging.

My thanks to Lakewood Fire District 2 which supplied some of the above information.  Now I just need to do the dishes and then I can take that nap.