Smoke Detectors and Fire Safety

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First Alert 3120B
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Best smoke detector

First Alert 3120B

Smoke detectors must be working to be effective

Buying a smoke detector puts you a good way toward preserving the lives of you and your loved ones should a fire break out. However, to get the benefit of the protection that smoke alarms can deliver, they need to be installed properly and maintained regularly.

Installing smoke alarms

Fires can spring up without notice and spread with surprising speed. That's why regulations and common sense dictate that smoke alarms be installed near likely points of ignition, and in any area where people are likely to be sleeping.

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) recommends installing smoke detectors on every level of your home, including the basement. Ceiling mounting is recommended; wall mounting is acceptable, but the smoke detector should be placed so that there's no more than a foot of clearance between the top of the alarm and the ceiling.

On floors where there are sleeping areas, install a smoke detector in each bedroom, as well as outside in a common area, such as a hallway. On floors without bedrooms, install one smoke detector in a common area such as a living room, near the stairs to the next level, or in both locations. In a basement, install a smoke detector on the ceiling near the bottom of the stairs to the first floor. You'll want a smoke alarm in a kitchen, of course, but not too close to any cooking appliances to keep false alarms to a minimum -- around 10 feet away is the NFPA's guidance. Also keep smoke detectors away from windows, doors or ducts as drafts can delay fire detection. And, while smoke detectors don't always blend in with your sense of style or décor, avoid painting them or decorating them in any other way.

Maintaining smoke alarms

According to the experts at the U.S. Fire Administration, which is part of FEMA, "A smoke alarm with a dead or missing battery is the same as having no smoke alarm at all." The good news is that performing regular testing and maintenance of your smoke detector is quick and easy. The bad news is that practically no one does it -- a September 2014 Harris poll, commission by Cintas Corporation, revealed that only around 10 percent of Americans test their smoke detector monthly, per the recommendations of the NFPA.

As noted, experts say that every smoke alarm should be tested once a month. Batteries, including back up batteries in AC-powered smoke detectors, should be replaced annually; one common recommendation is to use the changing of the clocks to Standard or Daylight Savings time as a reminder to change smoke detector batteries.

One exception is smoke detectors with lithium or other long-life batteries that are not user replaceable. These smoke detectors are mandatory in several states, including California and Maryland, and cities, including New York City and Philadelphia. Such smoke detectors should still be checked monthly, but once the batteries fail, the entire smoke detector needs to be replaced. Regardless of power source, all smoke detectors should be replaced every 10 years.

Smoke detectors need to be kept clean. Don't use water or cleaners, but a gentle vacuuming once a month will go a long way toward maintaining peak operation under most circumstances.

Don't ignore low-battery warnings. At the first sound of the distinctive chirping, replace batteries right away. If a low battery warning continues to sound after fresh batteries are installed, make sure those batteries are seated properly. Also, the NFPA recommends strictly following manufacturer recommendations on replacement batteries, including model and brand. "The smoke alarm may not work properly if a different kind of battery is used," the association says.

False alarms are, of course, an issue with nearly every smoke alarm -- and can be easily triggered by non-emergency situations such as cooking or taking a steamy shower. The last thing you should do is silence the alarm by disabling the unit or removing the battery -- that can be "a deadly mistake," the U.S. Fire Administration advises. Instead, push the "silence" or "hush" button that is found on most smoke detectors, then open doors and windows to clear the air. You can help things along by waving a towel to move the smoke/steam away from the smoke detector, or move the smoke detector away from the kitchen or bathroom for a short time.

Smoke detectors save lives

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.

Types of smoke detectors

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. One major reviewer only recommends dual sensor detectors.

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. With traditional battery-operated smoke alarms, 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. However, new regulations in several states have given rise to a new breed of smoke detector with a sealed lithium-ion battery that can't be replaced or removed, but is rated to last for 10 years. When the battery finally peters out, you need to replace the entire unit.

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. The major advantage of hard-wired smoke detectors is that they 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 traditional 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 the 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.

A combination CO and smoke detector is another option. They are generally pricier than stand-alone models, but can be cheaper than buying separate units for CO and smoke. This category also includes the latest smart smoke detectors, such as the Nest Protect (Est. $100), which is an interconnected smoke and CO detector that can also send an alert to a smartphone or tablet to warn you about a situation while you are away from home. The Nest smoke and CO detector was the subject of a recall in 2014 -- a feature that allowed users to silence an alarm with the wave of a hand also sometimes caused an alarm to fail to sound if there was nearby activity -- but that's since been addressed with a software update. If you are interested in a stand-alone carbon monoxide detector only, those are covered in their own report.

Finding the best smoke detectors

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.

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Nest Protect smoke & carbon monoxide alarm, Battery (2nd gen)
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