Experts say that while any working smoke detector is far better than none at all, the best approach is a combination of smoke detector technologies -- ionization and photoelectric. It's no surprise then that the best feedback was spotted for dual-sensor smoke detectors, which have both types of sensors built in.
For this edition of our report, the First Alert 3120B (Est. $30) is an easy recommendation as the best smoke alarm overall, but with one caveat. This is a hardwired, interconnectable alarm, which means that, while it's ideal for new construction or as part of a remodeling job, it's more of a hassle for do-it-yourselfers to install. However, expert and user feedback indicates that if you can overcome that hurdle, this is the smoke detector to buy.
This dual-sensor alarm is top rated in one expert review. Testing revealed it to be an excellent performer when called on to detect both flaming fires and smoldering ones.
User feedback is just as impressive. Smoke detectors of all types tend to get low marks, especially for their tendency for false alarms. While the 3120B is not immune to those types of complaints, we saw less of them than for most other smoke detectors. At Amazon.com, it earns a strong 4.5 star score after more than 300 reviews. While feedback is based on far fewer reviews at other sites, satisfaction is similar elsewhere. For example, it earns a 4.6 star score at Lowes.com, where all but one of the more than 20 users who rate it say they would recommend it to a friend.
The Kidde PI2010 (Est. $30) is similar, and performs similarly well in expert testing, again doing an excellent job detecting all types of fires. However, while it is expert recommended, user feedback isn't as strong. We spotted over 450 reviews at Amazon.com, and a disappointing 3.7 star rating. The biggest issue is the one the plagues many smoke detectors, excessive false alarms. At HomeDepot.com, where this smoke alarm is known as the FireX 21007915 (Est. $35) (The FireX brand is owned by Kidde.), it fares a little bit better -- 4.1 stars based on nearly 60 reviews. Once again, unhappy owners mostly complain about false alarms. Even some otherwise happy customers note that the PI2010 can get a bit "twitchy" if your electrical service is less than rock steady as power fluctuations appear capable of triggering false alarms.
If tackling the job of wiring a whole house smoke alarm system is too much for your DIY skills (or contractor budget) to allow, stand-alone battery-operated smoke detectors remain a reasonable second choice. Tops among these is the First Alert SA320CN (Est. $25), a dual-sensor, battery-powered smoke detector that earns positive feedback overall. It's been tested by one expert reviewer, and earns the top rating for detecting both smoldering fires and flaming ones, though not a recommendation -- presumably because it cannot be interconnected with other alarms. At Amazon.com, its 4.2 overall rating following more than 800 user reviews puts it in the upper-tier of smoke detectors in terms of owner satisfaction. Though it's based on far fewer reviews (just over 50), satisfaction is even higher at HomeDepot.com, where it scores 4.7 star rating, with recommendations from 97 percent of owners.
While most users are very satisfied with the First Alert SA320CN, a minority receive smoke detectors that appear to be defective, or that become so in a shorter than acceptable time frame. Some note that over time, the low-battery warning can begin to sound more frequently, even with fresh batteries.
The First Alert SA320CN formerly had a convenience feature, which allowed a false alarm to be silenced by a TV remote control. However, the feature had a tendency to be activated by other nearby remotes, leading to frequent false alarms. This smoke alarm no longer has that feature, and recent reviews reflect a significant decrease in false-alarm complaints -- though a few who base their purchase on outdated sales literature express disappointment. A single button located on the unit now serves as both a testing function and a silence function in the event of a false alarm.
The Kidde PI9010 (Est. $21) is similar, and scores identically to the First Alert SA320CN in expert testing. Like the First Alert SA320CN, it includes dual ionization/photoelectric sensors to detect both types of typical household fires.
However, as we saw with the hardwired version above, user satisfaction trails that of the SA320CN by a few notches -- 3.6 stars after more than 435 reviews at Amazon.com, for example. Complaints center on units that either sound excessive false alarms, or that completely fail within a year or two.
The two battery operated smoke detectors above use standard batteries. However, they are inappropriate for those that live in a state or city that requires that battery-operated smoke detectors be powered by sealed 10-year batteries. In that case, we suggest the First Alert SA3210 (Est. $50). It's very similar to the First Alert SA320CN save for the power source -- a sealed 10-year lithium battery that complies with regulations in those areas that require them. It's not been professionally reviewed, but the handful of user reviews we spotted scattered on sites across the Internet have all been positive thus far. It has both ionization and photoelectric sensors for protection against all types of fires.
Ionization-only smoke detectors are the most common variety in the United States -- making up some 90 percent of the total according to reports. These types of smoke detectors are ideal for detecting fast, active fires and flame particles. However, they are less effective in detecting slow, smoldering fires that give off lots of smoke, but little in the way of flames or heat.
The Kidde RF-SM-DC (Est. $30) is a top choice in this category. The RF-SM-DC has been professionally tested. While, like all ionization detectors, it scores poorly in detecting smoldering fires, it's a top performer when it comes to alerting you to flaming ones. User feedback is strong, and it gets good overall scores from owners posting to sites such as Amazon.com, where it earns a 4.6 star rating based on nearly 320 reviews. At HomeDepot.com, satisfaction is also high -- a 4.8 star rating based on nearly 75 reviews, with 96 percent of owners giving it their recommendation.
Like all smoke alarms, the Kidde RF-SM-DC isn't free of the odd lemon, and we did see a few reports of units that failed prematurely or that were given to hypersensitivity, signaling an alarm with little provocation. However, these reports are minimal compared to those that are satisfied, and low in relation to some other smoke detector models.
The battery powered Kidde RF-SM-DC is wirelessly interconnectable. If any of the connected Kidde RF-SM-DC smoke detectors is triggered, they all will sound the alarm. Owners praise this feature, which can potentially alert you faster to the presence of a fire anywhere in the home; it is said to work well.
The Kidde RF-SM-ACDC (Est. $60) is similar, but is hard wired. One useful application is as a bridge between a pre-existing hard-wired, interconnected smoke alarm network and a new Kidde wireless interconnected network. Simply replace one of the existing hard-wired smoke detectors with the Kidde RF-SM-ACDC and when a smoke detector on either network sounds, all will sound. The RF-SM-ACDC includes adapters that will allow this Kidde model to be used with most existing hard-wired smoke detector networks. It's not been tested by any experts we deem to be credible, but owner reviews are highly positive.
If you live in an area that requires a 10-year sealed battery, the Kidde i9010 (Est. $18) is worth considering. This is a stand-alone, ionization only smoke detector that's been around for a number of years. That may be why user reviews are a little mixed as the overarching complaint among those that are less than completely satisfied is that the smoke detector's battery petered out far sooner than the promised 10 years. Still, its satisfaction ratings (4.2 stars following nearly 200 reviews at Amazon.com, for example) are no worse than other cheap ionization smoke detectors that are similar, such as the First Alert SA340CN. That smoke alarm was recently discontinued and replaced by the First Alert 0827B ($20). Reviews that reflect the new model (and only the new model) are hard to come by; what we were able to find look positive so far, but there are too few of them, and they cover too short an ownership experience, to say that performance and longevity will be any better than what we see with the Kidde i9010.
The sensors in photoelectric smoke alarms respond best to smoky, smoldering fires, which develop slowly and often start in bedding, clothing or upholstery. The First Alert SA501CN-3ST (Est. $55) is a battery-operated photoelectric smoke alarm with wireless interconnectability. It is evaluated by one testing organization, which gives it excellent scores for detecting slow, smoldering fires, but poor ones for fast, flaming ones -- and that is typical for photoelectric smoke detectors in general and why many experts say you need both photoelectric and ionization detectors for complete protection.
User feedback is good, though not terribly extensive: it earns a 4.3-star score following more than 20 reviews at Amazon.com. One complaint we see, even among otherwise happy homeowners, is that the wireless range is limited so you might need to plan out your smoke detector network with some care to ensure flawless operation.
The First Alert SA521CN-3ST (Est. $35) is a hardwired version of the battery operated First Alert First Alert SA501CN-3ST interconnectable smoke detector. The two First Alert smoke detectors can be mixed and matched to create a smoke detector network that covers your premises. If you have a pre-existing interconnected hard-wired smoke detector network, an SA521CN-3ST can be substituted for one of the existing units to act as a bridge so that when one smoke detector is activated, all smoke detectors on both networks will sound an alarm. This can be an effective way to integrate new, interconnected photoelectric smoke detectors with an existing hard-wired interconnected ionization smoke detector network for protection against all types of fires. The alarms are also compatible with interconnectable First Alert CO and combination smoke and CO alarms, such as the First Alert SCO501CN-3ST (Est. $50) , which is covered in our section on combination smoke and CO detectors.
While First Alert and Kidde (and the additional brands both own) get the lions' share of feedback from experts and users, there are some pretty good smoke alarms from other makers as well. The Avantek X-Sense DS31 (Est. $17) is an inexpensive, stand-alone photoelectric smoke detector with a 10-year battery. It's not been professionally tested, but like other photoelectric smoke detectors, it's fair to expect excellent protection against smoldering fires, but poor detection of flaming ones.
User feedback, primarily at Amazon.com, is strong and the DS31 earns a 4.6 star rating following more than 200 reviews. The essentially identical Avantek X-Sense DS32 (Est. $17) does similarly well -- a 4.5 star rating, based on nearly 200 user reviews; the only apparent difference between the two models is that the DS32 has a larger and more dramatic LED indicator. Most users are thrilled with the value. The alarm is smaller than most other models, which draws raves from some, and expressions of disappointment from others (mostly from those that found that the smaller size exposed cosmetic issues in their walls or ceilings). Some aren't thrilled that that battery can't be replaced. Like all smoke detectors, some complaints of false alarms are noted, but less than with many competing models, and customer service looks to be proactive in reaching out and solving problems that owners encounter.