The chances are that you don’t have enough smoke detectors at home. If you’ve just installed one or two detectors, that’s far from enough. You are putting yourself and your family at risk.
Inadequate fire warning and safety systems are especially dangerous in today’s modern homes. Three decades ago families had about 17 minutes to clear out of the house in case of a fire. Today, they only have 4 minutes max.
Why the increased urgency?
Fires burn much faster in modern homes because of the synthetic materials used for construction and in furnishings.
The first step to protecting your family is making sure you have a proper and working fire alarm system in the house. I recommend using modern smart smoke detectors that come with additional safety features such as phone alerts.
Then make sure they are properly installed and maintained. Here is a handy guide for installing and maintaining smart smoke detectors.
Choosing The Best Smoke Alarm
Go for well-known brands that make reliable and good quality smoke detectors. You can’t afford to get a cheap off-brand smoke alarm that may or may not work when there’s a fire.
Brands like Nest, BRK, and Roost are well-established, and their products have excellent customer reviews.
It’s a good idea to get a combined smoke and carbon monoxide detector for full protection. Most smoke alarms nowadays, even the budget ones, have both features.
Others like the Nest have advanced sensors that will not only detect when there’s a fire but can tell whether it’s fast or slow fire.
Read my in-depth smart WiFi smoke detectors are buying a guide for more on choosing the best smart smoke alarm, whether to get a hardwired or battery-powered one, the different types of sensors and extra features to look out for.
Buy Enough For Your Home
According to the National Fire Protection Association, there should be a smoke alarm in every bedroom, outside of each sleeping area as well as on each level.
Remember that the basement and attic are individual levels too.
Let’s say you have a single level 3-bedroom house. You’ll need at least five smoke detectors: one for each bedroom, one outside the general sleeping area and one for the living room. If the bedrooms are on opposite ends of the house, you’ll need a smoke alarm outside each sleeping area.
Multi-level houses need even more alarms. In addition to an alarm inside each bedroom and outside each separate sleeping area, you’ll also need one for every level.
I highly recommend buying connected smoke detectors. These are smoke detectors that are linked either by wire or wirelessly via Bluetooth or WiFi. If any of the interconnected detectors go off, all the other go off too.
This dramatically improves fire safety especially in big homes where you may not be able to hear the basement alarm from your bedroom upstairs. An interconnected system ensures that everyone in the house can hear the alarm and get to safety in time (remember you only have 4 minutes, sometimes less to get out).
Note: When you are buying multiple interconnected smoke detectors, buy them from the same manufacturer. This ensures compatibility.
Consider Getting a Smart Smoke Alarm Detector
A smoke alarm detector is a small WiFi-connected device that detects when the smoke alarm goes off. It’s helpful if you want to be alerted in case the smoke detector goes off when you are not at home. It’s also handy for rentals and holiday homes.
A smoke alarm detector does not detect smoke or carbon monoxide. It detects a smoke alarm by listening for a specific frequency that is emitted by ringing smoke alarms.
Depending on how you’ve set it up it can send you an alert on your phone or call an emergency contact.
Consider Buying a Smart Battery
Instead of waiting until the smoke alarms alert you to a low battery using irritating beeps, get a smart battery that will alert you well ahead of time.
One of the best smart batteries is the Roost PP3 smart battery. It not only alerts you via phone when the battery is getting low, but it will also monitor the smoke alarm and send you an alert if it goes off. It’s basically a smoke alarm detector and a smart battery in one device.
The Roost PP3 has a battery life of 5 years. You don’t need to replace it annually.
Where to Position Smoke Detectors
First make sure you’ve bought enough smoke detectors for all the recommended areas of the house. The next step is to make sure you’ve installed them in the right positions. Here are some pointers.
- You can position the smoke detector either high on the wall or on the ceiling. But make sure it is positioned just inside the entrance of the room. This allows quick detection of smoke or CO from other areas of the house.
- If you place the smoke detector on the wall it should be at most 1ft from the ceiling. This ensures it’s high enough to detect rising smoke.
- If you install the smoke detector on the ceiling, it should be at least 4in from the nearest wall or corner. This ensures it is not in a dead air space where there may not be enough smoke for it to detect.
- If you have pitched ceilings, install the smoke detector within 3ft of the apex but at least 4inches away from the peak (dead air zone).
- For multilevel homes you should install a smoke alarm at the top of the stairway leading to the next level. In the basement, position the detector on the ceiling right above the top of the stairs leading into the next floor.
- To avoid false alarms, install smoke detectors at least 10ft away from the cooking area. If that is not possible buy a smoke alarm with a snooze feature. Activating snooze, usually by pressing a button on the smoke alarm, on a remote control or on your phone (for smart smoke alarms), reduces the sensitivity of the alarm for 10-30 minutes.
- For small kitchens it might be better to place the smoke detector just outside or inside the entrance where it won’t detect cooking smoke.
- Do not install smoke detectors near doors, windows, fan, ducts or AC vents where it might be unable to detect smoke from a fire.
- Finally, never paint over smoke alarms or cover them with anything that might obstruct or affect their operation.
Test Your Smoke Alarms
Immediately you install the smoke detectors, test them. Most detectors have a test button that will simulate a real alarm. If yours doesn’t have one or it doesn’t work, use real smoke. Using a step ladder to reach the detector, light three matches and hold them under it until the alarm goes off.
Your whole family should be involved in the test. Send them to different parts of the house and make sure they can clearly hear the alarm. If you have interconnected smoke detectors, check that all of them go off during the test.
The US Fire Administration recommends repeating the test at least once every month.
This is also a great time to carry out fire drills. Use this printable worksheet by the American Red Cross to plan your family’s fire evacuation plan.
It recommends having two evacuation routes and ensuring that everyone in the house knows what to do in case of a fire. Make sure that during the fire drill everyone can evacuate in 2-3 minutes.
Dealing With False Alarms
False fire alarms can be a real nuisance, waking you up in the middle of the night for nothing. It can be even worse with WiFi alarms that keep alerting your phone and keeping you on edge when there is no fire.
To avoid false alarms, make sure you buy good quality smoke detectors. Check customer reviews to see whether many customers are complaining about false alarms. If you are purchasing a smoke alarm detector be even more careful. These devices are more prone to false alarms than the main smoke detectors.
If you’ve already bought smoke alarms, check that you’ve installed them correctly. One common cause of false alarms is installing a detector too close to the cooking area. Move it further away or use the snooze feature when cooking.
If the alarms are correctly installed, then there could be something interfering with the sensors. Disassemble the problematic smoke detector (check the manual for disassembly instructions) and clean it. Wipe the dust off the outside and use a handheld vacuum on the inside to get rid of dust and trapped dead insects.
If dirty sensors are not the problem, it could be an issue with the smoke detector itself. Most manufacturers recommend resetting the detector to see if the false alarms go away. See the manual for reset instructions.
If it is a battery-powered detector, you can also try installing new batteries and then re-test the smoke alarms.
If that doesn’t help, you may just have to get a new smoke alarm or replace all of them.
How to Clean and Maintain A Smoke Detector
It’s extremely important to maintain smoke detectors in a good working condition. This involves monthly tests, battery replacements and regular dusting. Here are some maintenance pointers.
- Dust the smoke alarms regularly by wiping them on the outside. At least once a year open them up and clean the interior. Remember to first disconnect the power or the batteries before disassembling the unit. Then use a dry cloth, compressed air can or handheld vacuum to get rid any accumulated dust and dead insects. Check the manual for specific disassembly and cleaning instructions.
- Test all smoke alarms monthly to ensure they are working. If they don’t go off or behave abnormally, clean them and retest again. If they still don’t work properly replace the batteries (for battery-operated alarms) or replace the alarms.
- Most battery-operated alarms should have their batteries replaced every year. Pick a memorable event or holiday that happens once a year and replace the batteries on that day. But if your smoke alarms use long-life lithium batteries, they can last 5-10 years. But you should still test them monthly.
- All smoke detectors, whether battery-operated or hardwired, should be replaced after 10 years according to the US Fire Administration. Even if your smoke alarm is in a good working condition you should still replace it. The sensors are worn out and may not detect a fire as quickly.