Home Fire Safety: How to Optimize Your Smoke Detector for Maximum Efficiency

10/25/2021

One of the simplest devices in your home can help save the lives of everyone in it. According to the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA), the risk of dying in a home fire is cut in half in homes with working smoke alarms. Developed initially in the 1950s but required in most homes by 1976, smoke detectors have alerted countless people to the presence of fire or harmful smoke and saved their lives.

How a Smoke Detector Works

There are two types of technology used to detect smoke: Ionization and photoelectric detection. Ionization involves two charged plates that have a stream of tiny electric particles called ions flowing between them. When smoke enters the chamber and disrupts the ion chain it sets off the alarm. This is the best kind of technology in the presence of bigger flaming fires.

Photoelectric devices use a beam of LED light. When it's disrupted by smoke, it activates the alarm. These provide the fastest responses for a fire that begins with a slow smolder.

Choosing a Smoke Detector

Both types work for most fires and some devices even have both kinds of technology within. Some use batteries only and some are hardwired into the wall or ceiling with a backup battery.

You may also see “heat detector" alarms. While those are helpful as well, smoke detectors act earlier in the fire, giving people more time to get to safety. Some of these have a heat-sensitive element as well.

Maximizing the Efficiency of Your Smoke Detector

While the basic science of smoke detection hasn't changed much, it's been optimized for the 21st century. Newer “smart" models can communicate with your phone via wi-fi to tell you when they need maintenance or batteries and some light up as you pass by in the dark. They can even tell the fine difference between steam from your shower or cooking and smoke. Some have a calm speaking feature for the beginning of an activation cycle so you could, for example, turn off a burning pan before the alert becomes a screeching wail.

And if you're able to interconnect the smoke alarms throughout the home via hard wiring or wi-fi—enabling a detector on one side of the house to alert all the others before the smoke or fire arrives—that can shave precious seconds off your response time.

How to Maintain Your Smoke Detector

You've probably heard that one of the best ways to keep fresh batteries in your smoke detectors is to swap them out at the same time you change your clock for Daylight Savings Time. (This is also a good way to avoid the dreaded “chirp" sound a dying battery causes the smoke detector to emit.) It's great advice—but there's much more to know. The USFA list of recommendations for installing and maintaining smoke detectors include:

  • Putting devices in each bedroom, outside all sleeping areas, and in every level of the home, including the basement and attic.
  • Installing them 10 feet or more from a stove or toaster to cut down on false alarms (but avoid placing them near a door or window where a draft can affect the air flow).
  • Don't paint over a smoke detector, apply stickers, cover it with fabric or do anything that may impede its sensitivity.
  • Test them at least once a month and clean according to the manufacturer's instructions.
  • Many smoke alarms come with 10-year batteries that aren't replaceable. When those start chirping, it's time to replace the entire thing.

The Most Important Part

There's also the human factor to consider when it comes to smoke detector safety. Make sure everyone knows what the smoke detector sounds like when it goes off and what the plan is after that. If it's a real fire that seems out of control, leave it to the pros and call 911 so you, your family and your pets can make it out safely.

For more about how you can make your home as safe as it can possibly be, connect with a Westfield agent.