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. So, then, it's no surprise that the best feedback was spotted for dual-sensor smoke detectors, which have both types of sensors built in.
The First Alert SA320CN (Est. $25) is a dual-sensor, battery-powered smoke detector that earns positive feedback overall. It's been tested by one expert reviewer, and performed well enough to earn a Recommended rating. It earns a score of good in detecting flaming fires, and very good in detecting slow, smoldering ones. At Amazon.com, its 4.2 overall rating following roughly 430 user reviews puts it in the upper-tier of smoke detectors in terms of owner satisfaction. At HomeDepot.com, the number of reviewers is much smaller, but 97 percent of them would recommend the smoke detector to a friend.
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and recent reviews reflect a significant decrease in false-alarm complaints -- though a few who base their purchase on outdated sales literature express disappointment.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. $30) is similar. Like the First Alert SA320CN, it includes dual ionization/photoelectric sensors to detect both types of typical household fires. This model replaces an older, similar model: the Kidde Pi9000, which racked up good feedback from professional reviewers.
Reports say this Kidde unit is easy to install and to test, with a single button that activates a test and silences the alarm if it goes off unnecessarily. This smoke detector is very sensitive, which is both a pro and a con, according to reviews. Some owners say that it tends to go off for non-emergencies, such as showers or cooking, while others see this as a solid indication that this smoke detector will readily sound in the event of an actual fire. That said, user feedback is a little less positive than we see for the SA320CN at user review sites, such as Amazon.com where it scores almost a half-point lower at 3.7 stars. Also, watch out for model numbers as Kidde offers an ionization-only smoke detector with a similar designation -- the Kidde i9010 (Est. $19).
Note that the Kidde Pi9010 and the First Alert SA320CN are stand-alone smoke detectors that can't be interconnected with other alarms. The Kidde Pi2010 (Est. $40) is dual-sensor smoke alarm that is interconnectable, but it is also hard-wired. That's fine for installation in new construction or as part of a major remodeling job, but running the wiring from smoke detector to smoke detector in existing construction is a messy, time-consuming job, and one that should only be done by a qualified individual.
The Kidde Pi2010 has not received any professional feedback that we've spotted, but user reviews are decent. At HomeDepot.com, where it's known as the FireX 21007915 (Est. $35), it is recommended by 97 percent of the more than 30 users who leave feedback. (The FireX brand is owned by Kidde.) Feedback is much more extensive at Amazon.com, but is also a bit softer (3.9 stars), with unhappy owners mostly complaining 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.
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. $40) is a top choice in this category. While RF-SM-DC hasn't been included in any professional smoke detector comparison tests, it gets good overall scores from owners posting to sites such as Amazon.com, Lowes.com and HomeDepot.com.
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. Again, we see no trusted expert reviews, but owner reviews are highly positive.
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 ONELINK (Est. $45) 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 most at Amazon.com comes from those who purchased the First Alert SA501CN2 ONELINK (Est. $80), which is a two-pack of this smoke detector; it earns a 4.3-star score following roughly 115 reviews. 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.
First Alert also offers the SA521CN ONELINK (Est. $35), a hardwired version of the battery operated First Alert SA501CN ONELINK interconnectable smoke detector. The two wireless 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 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.
Among stand-alone photoelectric smoke detectors, the First Alert SA710CN (Est. $13) is recommended by two consumer testing organizations, both of which evaluate numerous smoke detectors for their ability to detect both smoldering fires and active flames. Once again, and as one might expect, in both cases the detector is found to be considerably more responsive to smoldering fires than to active blazes.
User reviews are good, though not everyone is completely happy. The most common complaint about the First Alert SA710CN is the low-battery warning. Several owners say that after a few months, the low-battery warning seems to sound constantly, even after multiple battery changes. Overall, however, most owners are pleased with the reliability of this unit, and it also earns high marks for convenience and ease of use, with a slide-out battery drawer, meaning the unit doesn't need to be disassembled to replace the batteries.
Elsewhere in this Issue:
Best Reviewed Smoke Detectors: A look at the different types of smoke detectors, along with editors' recommendations on the best choices to keep you and your family safe in case of a fire.
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.
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.