What the best smoke detector has
Dual sensors. Because ionization and photoelectric sensors
detect different types of fire hazards, your family will be most adequately
protected with a smoke detector that contains both types of sensors. You can
also provide good fire protection by installing separate ionization and
photoelectric smoke detectors.
Battery backup. Many smoke detectors run using AC power.
That's a great alternative, and something that's required in new construction
in some locales -- that is, until the power goes out. To ensure your protection
is intact under all circumstances, most AC-powered smoke detectors have a
battery back-up. It can be easy to forget that those batteries are there, but
it's no less important to check back-up batteries regularly, and change them as
Reasonable installation. For existing
buildings, battery-powered smoke detectors are easier to install than hardwired
units, negating the need to fuss with electrical wiring. In addition to the
electrical connection, you may need to run a wire from smoke detector to smoke
detector if your model is interconnectable, though opting for wireless
connectivity can eliminate that last consideration. For new construction, however,
a hard-wired unit makes sense, and might be required in some towns, cities and
Easy maintenance. It's easier
to change batteries in some smoke detectors than others. While some models
require almost complete disassembly, others have convenient slide out trays so
that batteries can be changed without even removing the detector from its wall
or ceiling mount.
Testing functionality. The best
smoke detectors have a test function to ensure the unit is working adequately,
such as a button you press.
Freedom from false alarms. All smoke
alarms may go off periodically under false pretenses, such as smoke from
cooking, steam from a hot shower, or, in the case of AC-powered detectors, a
power fluctuation. The best smoke detectors, while not immune from the issue,
makes it a less-regular occurrence. A silence button allows you to quickly
deactivate the alarm, but fumbling around to find it at 3 a.m. is never fun. In
addition, most smoke detectors are located up high, on 8- or 9-foot ceilings,
so you'll need a step stool to reach it.
Certification. Only buy smoke detectors that have passed
certification by a recognized testing authority. In the United States,
Underwriters Laboratory certification carries the most weight.
Long warranty. Smoke detectors can malfunction, but the best
models come with five-to-10-year warranties. The U.S. Fire Administration recommends
replacing the entire unit every eight to 10 years.
Know before you go
What are the regulations in your state or
municipality? State and
local laws regarding smoke detectors vary widely. The National Conference of State
Legislatures is a good resource for determining state regulations,
but check with your town or city to see if it has additional restrictions or
requirements regarding types and placement of smoke detectors.
Do you need a carbon monoxide detector? If you have a fuel-burning appliance in your
home -- stove, fireplace, heater, boiler -- having a carbon monoxide detector
is a very good idea, and a legal requirement in many places. Some manufacturers
offer combination units; we cover carbon monoxide detectors and combination smoke/carbon
monoxide detectors in a separate report.
How are your existing smoke detectors installed? If you currently have hard-wired,
interconnected smoke alarms in your home, you'll want to replace those with the
same type. Certain smoke detectors come equipped with universal mounting kits,
which work with most existing mounting set ups, eliminating the need to drill
Check out package deals. Smoke
detectors can be bought singly, or in packages of two to six units. The price
break for these bulk packs can save you a few dollars per alarm, but check
prices -- when we did, we found a few cases where buying individual alarms
worked out to be cheaper.
Replace all smoke detectors at the same time. If you find it's necessary to replace one
smoke detector, it's a good idea to replace them all -- especially if you're uncertain
of a unit's age.
Some fire departments offer free smoke alarms. Smoke detectors aren't terribly expensive -- at
least when measured against the safety of your family. Still, if the financial
burden of buying smoke detectors will strain your budget, some local fire
departments will supply free smoke detectors and in some cases even install
them for those with financial need. Contact your local firehouse to see if such
a program is available where you live.