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Smoke Alarms 101: The Homeowner's Guide to Fire Protection

Apr 24, 2019|

Do you know how many smoke alarms are currently installed in your home? How sure are you that each of them are in working order? When was the last time you changed the batteries or vacuumed the chamber entrances?

Not sure?

It’s easy to forget that these life-saving devices require some routine maintenance in order to detect early signs of smoke and prevent a disaster. But you can easily learn how to take good care of your smoke alarms so they can take good care of you.

How do smoke alarms work?

Have you ever wondered how smoke alarms actually work? Here are the basics.

There are generally two different types of smoke alarms to choose from: photoelectric and ionization.

Photoelectric smoke alarms use an infrared light beam, a light-emitting diode, and a photocell. When smoke enters the internal chamber of the device, the light beam is scattered by the smoke particles and redirected to the photocell.

The photocell is an electric light detector that is capable of generating energy when activated. When the beam hits the photocell, the alarm is triggered, alerting everyone in the house that there's a fire.

The ionization smoke alarm uses chemistry to sense the presence of smoke. Inside the ionization chamber, the detector houses a constant circulation of ions and electrons that rotate around electrodes – not unlike a battery. Once smoke enters the detector, it starts to clog up the ionization chamber and disrupt the whizzing ions, which sets off the alarm.

In both cases, smoke must enter the detector in order to trigger the alarm, which makes regular care and maintenance a must. Because these alarms are designed differently, they’re each better at detecting different degrees of fire.

An ionized detector is more receptive to smoke from growing flames, while the photoelectric alarm is better at detecting smoke from a smoldering fire. 

Smoke Detector White Mounted Ceiling 2
It can be easy to forget that your smoke alarms need regular maintenance, but they do. And taking care of them will ensure your family is safe in case of an emergency.

Smoke alarm care and maintenance

Your smoke alarm is the first line of defense for protecting your home against a possible fire-related disaster. As such, it’s important that you prioritize smoke alarm care and maintenance so they can perform at the optimal level.

Below, we’ve answered the most common questions that have to do with the care and maintenance of smoke alarms.

How often should I change the batteries in my smoke alarms?

Unless you’re using lifelong batteries in your fire alarms, you should change the batteries on an annual basis. If your detectors are fairly dated, don’t use lifelong batteries, as they can disrupt the performance of older models.

If your smoke detectors start chirping before you hit the one-year mark, replace the batteries immediately.

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How long do smoke alarms last?

After 10 years of protecting your home and the loved ones inside, it’s time to say goodbye to your detectors and install new ones. After a decade of constant monitoring, the sensors inside a smoke alarm can weaken. Just because the test button is still responsive doesn’t mean the smoke-detecting sensors still work—it just means the batteries are still working.

When should I replace an older smoke alarm, even if it appears functional?

If you don’t know or can’t remember how old your smoke alarms are, how do you know when to replace them?

Relying on the smoke alarm's test button isn’t the right way to find out if the sensors are still working. Instead, buy a can of smoke detector tester and follow the instructions on the back to test the sensors inside your smoke alarms. If they’re dysfunctional, replace the devices right away.

Where should I install smoke alarms in my home?

How many smoke detectors do you currently have in your home? It may not be enough.

The National Fire Protection Association urges homeowners to install multiple smoke detectors on every level of the home. They recommend placing detectors in the following areas:

  • Inside every bedroom
  • Right outside every sleeping area
  • Living rooms or family rooms
  • Near stairways
  • Long hallways
  • The kitchen

You can, of course, install more than the minimum for added security and peace of mind. Before you begin installation, use these tips for optimal placement of your smoke alarms.

  • Place your kitchen smoke alarm at least 10 feet away from your cooking appliances. Otherwise, you'll end up with a high-pitched alarm every time you overlook a meal on the stovetop. Remember, it doesn't take much to disrupt the beam of light or the swirling ions inside the chamber.
  • Place your smoke alarms high on the wall or on the ceiling. Smoke will rise through the air and enter the chambers of a high-seated detector. If you have a pitched ceiling, mount the alarm at least three feet down from the peak.
  • Avoid placing your alarms right near doors and windows. Otherwise, a draft could interfere with the functionality of the device.

What can you do to maintain your smoke alarms?

In addition to changing the batteries on an annual basis and testing the smoke detectors monthly, it’s also important to keep them clean.

A simple buildup of dust has the power to render your smoke alarms useless. At least once a year, vacuum the chamber entrances of your alarms to keep them in working order. Make a habit of cleaning them when you change the batteries so you don't forget.

Smoke Detector Isolated
Regularly clean your smoke detectors with a vacuum to keep them working properly.

Can I paint my smoke alarms?

A smoke alarm isn't always the prettiest home security device, especially if it has faded over the years from a clean white to a yellowish stain on the ceiling.

Be that as it may, it is never a good idea to try and improve the appearance with paint, marker, stickers, or any other kind of decoration. These modifications can easily inhibit the performance of the sensors inside.

If you're bothered by the look of your detectors, consider an upgrade to a model with a sleek, modern design. You may even find an attractive model with added features that improve your home's security.

How often should I test my smoke alarm?

Make sure your detectors are in working order with a quick and simple press of the test button. You should do this every month to ensure your alarms are prepared to warn you and your family if a fire sparks.


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Smoke vs. carbon monoxide detectors

Smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors are two very different devices that both deserve a place in your home. It's not uncommon for people to assume that they're the same thing or that either can be triggered by both the presence of smoke and carbon monoxide. This is not the case.

Fire alarms detect smoke. Carbon monoxide detectors detect carbon monoxide, a harmful gas that can cause health complications, or even death.

You can purchase dual detectors designed to pick up the presence of both smoke and carbon monoxide. But it's often best to arm your home with individual detectors that are created for their specific job. They are often more reliable and easier to maintain than dual detectors.

Vivint Carbon Monoxide Detector Modern Home
Protect your home with smart smoke and carbon monoxide detectors from Vivint.

What factors should you consider when choosing a smoke alarm?

Before you start shopping for a new set of smoke detectors, it's important to understand that not all smoke alarms are created equal.

Use these buyer's tips to select a high-quality smoke detection system that can effectively prevent disaster and provide you with some well-deserved peace of mind.

1. Buy from a trusted brand

Choose a trusted brand that has built a reputation for dependable, high-quality products. Before you make a purchase, check reviews for the detector or the manufacturer to affirm that you're choosing a device you can rely on.

2. Get interconnected smoke alarms

Interconnected smoke alarms are a worthy investment in the security of your home and family – especially if your home is moderately large and has multiple levels. Interconnected smoke alarms will alert everyone in the home, no matter where they are. When one alarm sounds, the rest will follow suit.

3. Consider smart home security

Smart home technology has improved immensely over the last decade. Nowadays, you can outfit your home with smart smoke alarms that will detect a sudden rise in temperature. They can also send an immediate notification to your smartphone if the batteries are low.

Most importantly, a smart home system can protect your home, even when you're not there.

If you're away on vacation or running an errand, your smart smoke detectors can send notifications to your smartphone and alert the authorities. This could mean the difference between minor smoke damage and losing your entire home to a fire.

Vivint app Smoke Detector Notification
In case of a fire, you'll receive an immediate notification via the Vivint app and the appropriate authorities will be contacted.

The best smoke detectors for your home

A fully functional, high quality set of smoke alarms in your home is a life-saving security feature necessary in every home. Secure your home and protect your family with the smart smoke alarms from Vivint.

Combine your smart home security system with top-of-the-line smoke detectors for the ultimate fire protection system. Vivint smoke alarms are designed to provide you with peace of mind whether you’re out of town, enjoying time with the family in the living room, or fast asleep.

Ready to install Vivint smoke detectors? Call us today at 844.481.8630 for a free quote.

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