Smoke detectors save lives
The statistics are sobering and tragic: Three out of five home fire deaths occur in cases where there were no working smoke alarms, reports the National Fire Protection Association. Just having working smoke alarms cuts your chances of dying in a home fire in half. The key word in both those statements is "working," because there are many cases where smoke detectors are present, but not working because the batteries are either dead or missing, or have been disconnected because of nuisance alarms -- which is sometimes a case of the homeowner misinterpreting the chirping of a low-battery warning as continuous false alarms.
This report focuses on smoke detectors, zeroing in on top performers according to expert and owner reviews. We will also delve into the different types of smoke detectors, where they are most effective, and how to install and maintain your smoke detectors so they deliver of the maximum possible warning in case a fire erupts.
Types of smoke detectors
Several different types of smoke detectors are available. Ionization smoke detectors are best at detecting fast, flaming fires -- such as those fueled by paper or flammable liquids -- and are commonly used in kitchens. Photoelectric smoke detectors, on the other hand, are better at detecting slow, smoldering fires. These fires are often started by weak heat sources, such as an unextinguished cigarette, in upholstered furniture, bedding, drapery, etc.
Which type of smoke detector is best? Experts say that to be fully protected against all types of fires you need both types placed in strategic locations throughout your home. That means that if you have an existing home, adding a few additional smoke detectors -- most likely photoelectric smoke detectors since the majority of smoke detectors already installed in the U.S. are of the ionization type. Another option is to upgrade all of your existing units to dual-sensor smoke detectors, which have both ionization and photoelectric sensors and are effective in detecting all types of common fires. One major reviewer only recommends dual sensor detectors.
Smoke detectors can either be battery operated or be hard wired to your home's electrical system. Battery-operated smoke detectors are the easiest to install. With traditional battery-operated smoke alarms, you need to be extra diligent in testing the batteries and replacing any that are weak to ensure that the smoke detector will operate in the event of a fire. However, new regulations in several states have given rise to a new breed of smoke detector with a sealed lithium-ion battery that can't be replaced or removed, but is rated to last for 10 years. When the battery finally peters out, you need to replace the entire unit.
Hard-wired smoke detectors require a more involved installation, and many authorities recommend that it be done by a licensed professional who is familiar with electrical and fire safety codes. The major advantage of hard-wired smoke detectors is that they are more likely to be operational in case of an emergency -- except in those cases where there has been a power outage or the power has been turned off for any other reason. To counter any possibility of that happening, hard-wired smoke detectors have battery backups; however, just as in the case of traditional battery-operated smoke detectors, homeowners need to be diligent in making sure that the backup battery is both installed and fresh so that the smoke detector won't fail you when you need it most.
Interconnected smoke detectors add an additional measure of safety as all will sound when any individual smoke detector is activated. That can save precious minutes in the case of a fire in an unoccupied part of the house -- for example, a basement fire while all members of the household are asleep in upstairs bedrooms. The most common type of interconnected smoke detector is hard wired, but it is also the most costly and complicated to install since an electrical connection needs to be run between all of the smoke detectors on the same loop. Most who opt for hard-wired interconnected smoke detectors do so as part of a major remodeling project or during new construction.
Wireless interconnected smoke detectors are now also available. These can be hard-wired, battery-operated, or a combination of both. Each wireless smoke detector acts as a node in a mesh network, relaying signals to provide complete coverage in your home. Both Kidde and First Alert -- the two major providers of smoke detectors in the U.S. -- offer hard-wired wireless smoke detectors that can act as a bridge, merging an older hard-wired interconnected smoke detector network with a new, wireless interconnected network. In that way, when any one smoke detector in either network sounds, every smoke detector in both networks will as well.
A combination CO and smoke detector is another option. They are generally pricier than stand-alone models, but can be cheaper than buying separate units for CO and smoke. This category also includes the latest smart smoke detectors, such as the Nest Protect (Est. $100), which is an interconnected smoke and CO detector that can also send an alert to a smartphone or tablet to warn you about a situation while you are away from home. The Nest smoke and CO detector was the subject of a recall in 2014 -- a feature that allowed users to silence an alarm with the wave of a hand also sometimes caused an alarm to fail to sound if there was nearby activity -- but that's since been addressed with a software update. If you are interested in a stand-alone carbon monoxide detector only, those are covered in their own report.
Finding the best smoke detectors
The best smoke detectors are reliable, durable and easy to use. Ideally, you want a smoke detector that will alert you fast enough for you and your family to safely escape your home. Beyond reliability, we look for smoke detectors that are easy to install, test and silence in the case of a false alarm. To determine the best smoke detectors, we consulted reviews conducted by consumer testing organizations, including ConsumerReports.org. We also evaluated owner-written reviews on sites including Amazon.com, Lowes.com and HomeDepot.com.