First Alert SA320CN
First Alert SA320CN

Best smoke detector

The First Alert SA320CN is a dual-sensor smoke detector that's easy to install and has few false alarms. It uses both ionization and photoelectric technology, and experts say you need both of those for comprehensive detection of all types of common household fires. An easy-to-use test and silence button lets you know the unit is working and allows you to quickly silence the 85-decibel alarm if it goes off unnecessarily.
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Kidde Pi2010
Kidde Pi2010

Interconnected dual-sensor smoke detector

The Kidde Pi2010 is an interconnectable dual-sensor smoke alarm, meaning that it can be hooked up so that if any smoke alarm in your home is triggered, they all sound a warning. However, it is also hard-wired, meaning that while a battery is present as a back-up, the Pi2010 needs to be connected directly to your home's AC wiring and a separate wire needs to be run between smoke detectors for them to pass their warnings to each other. That makes the Kidde Pi2010 very much worth considering for new construction or a major remodeling job, but a messy and potentially expensive proposition -- experts recommend hiring an electrician for this type of project -- otherwise.

First Alert SA501CN ONELINK
First Alert SA501CN ONELINK

Wireless interconnected photoelectric smoke detector

The First Alert SA501CN ONELINK is a photoelectric smoke detector -- the type that testing proves is more effective against smoldering fires than the more common ionization detectors, which are found in 90 percent of American homes. It is also wirelessly interconnectable, making it easy to set up a network of smoke detectors that will all sound if any are triggered -- and without the mess and expense of opening walls and running wires throughout your house.
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First Alert SA710CN
First Alert SA710CN

Cheap photoelectric smoke detector

Photoelectric smoke detectors like the First Alert SA710CN are better at detecting slow, smoldering fires than ionization smoke alarms. This battery-powered model earns praise from professionals and owners for its simple installation, which coupled with its low cost, makes it an ideal add-on for homes already equipped with ionization smoke detectors.
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Kidde RF-SM-DC
Kidde RF-SM-DC

Ionization smoke detector

The Kidde RF-SM-DC is a battery-powered, interconnected ionization smoke alarm system. It uses wireless communications to make installing an interconnected smoke-detector network easier. It does a terrific job detecting fast, blazing fires, but you'll also want to invest in some photoelectric smoke detectors, such as the First Alert SA710CN, which do a better job of detecting smoldering fires.
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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.

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, but 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. 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. Hard-wired smoke detectors 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 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 our 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.

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.

Elsewhere in this Issue:

Smoke Detectors and Fire Safety: Buying top-performing smoke detectors is a great first step, but installing and maintaining them properly is key if they are to perform properly in an emergency. Here's what to do.

Best Smoke Detector: The top performing photoelectric, ionization and dual sensor smoke detectors are discussed in detail, along with some good alternatives to consider.

Buying Guide: Want to make sure you buy the right smoke detector to keep you and your family safe? We run down the things to consider to find the right smoke detector for your home and your needs.

Our Sources: These are the expert and user reviews we used to find the best smoke alarms -- ranked in order of their helpfulness and expertise.

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