Buying Guide: Smoke Detectors
What the best smoke
- 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.
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. Some detectors have
sealed batteries that can't be changed at all.
- 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 type of sensors? Because
ionization and photoelectric sensors detect different types of fire hazards,
your family will be most adequately protected if your home contains smoke
alarms with both types. You can provide good fire protection by installing
separate ionization and photoelectric smoke detectors in the most appropriate
locations -- for example an ionization smoke detector near a kitchen to detect
a fast-burning fire, and photoelectric detectors in living and sleeping areas
to warn of smoldering ones -- or by opting for a model that contains both for
use in all locations. Both approaches are acceptable, but each has pros and
- 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 -- such as a stove,
fireplace, heater, or 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 combination smoke/carbon monoxide detectors in this
report. If all you want is a stand-alone CO detector, those are covered in our CO detector 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.
- Are sealed batteries a requirement? A growing number of states and cities now require that all new battery-operated
smoke detectors be powered by non-replaceable sealed batteries capable of
lasting for the 10-year expected lifetime of the alarm. A list of locations
where these smoke detectors are currently required can be found here.
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
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