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.
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.
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.