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 needed.
  • 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 states.
  • 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 additional holes.

Buying tactics and strategies

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.

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