A smoke alarm could save your life one day. I suspect you already know that smoke alarms will warn you of a fire, giving you time to react. They are always alert, so you can relax in the knowledge that you’re always protected…
It’s just like living in a city with a caped crusader.
When disaster strikes in the middle of the night, they are there to alert you with plenty of time to get your family out. However, they can only do that if you have one installed and it works.
But with so many different varieties, which one do you chose? Then where do you put it? And how many do you need?
Thankfully, we’re here to help you.
Making Sense Of Sensors
Ionisation and optical smoke alarms. Those are your two choices.
But what does that actually mean? Well, I’m glad you asked.
Alarms with ionisation technology contain a small amount of radioactive material. Don’t worry, you won’t develop superhuman powers from it. It works by charging the particles inside the smoke alarm. Then when smoke enters the alarm, the particles change which then triggers it to beep.
This makes the alarm better at detecting a fast-burning fire.
If you have a smoke alarm in your hallways which likes to cheer when you do the cooking, it could be an ionisation alarm. That is because cooking fumes can also have the same effect as the radioactively-charged particles.
Instead, you should consider changing it to an optical smoke alarm, which works by ‘seeing’ the smoke.
Every ten seconds, the alarm will emit an Infrared beam of light inside the alarm. When smoke is present, it will cause this light to reflect onto the sensor, prompting the alarm.
These are much better at detecting a smouldering fire, which causes a lot of smoke. As burning upholstery is usually the source of a smouldering fire, optical alarms are ideal for living rooms.
For the kitchen, you will need to have a heat alarm fitted. This is the best way of stopping false alarms when you burn the toast.
Heat alarms don’t work by detecting smoke, meaning cooking fumes don’t affect them. They activate when they detect an excessive temperature or an unusual temperature increase. Just take care to not put it directly above your hob or oven, but instead in the centre of the kitchen if possible.
And while you’re looking into smoke alarms, give CO alarms some thought as well. A chemical reaction, which happens when carbon monoxide is present, will activate the alarm. This way you can prevent your family from succumbing to the effects of the poisonous gas.
An ordinary smoke alarm will not warn you of a carbon monoxide leak. Instead, you will need a separate alarm.
But you can also buy a combination alarm which offers protection from both smoke and CO.
You Have The Power
It’s estimated that around 30% of smoke alarms in the UK have dead or removed batteries. And when that’s the case, they’re not protecting you.
One way you can prevent that from happening is to buy a long-life smoke alarm.
These come fitted with a lithium battery which have a ten-year guarantee. That’s ten years you can go without having to replace the battery in your alarm. Although the initial cost is more, think of the money you will save on batteries. Plus it’s a more environmentally friendly way of living.
And as they’re sealed, it means that no-one can tamper with them before they reach you.
If you opt for the traditional battery smoke alarm, you just need to remember to change the battery every year. We all know to use those 9v batteries, but have a few spare so you can change them as soon as you need to.
Giving Your Smoke Alarm Friends
Did you know that you can buy smoke alarms which are all linked together? It means that if one alarm goes off, they’ll all sound.
This is great for large houses, but also if a fire breaks out downstairs when you’re sleeping upstairs.
Having a series of connected alarms will mean you’re warned far earlier than would otherwise happen. Plus the whole household is aware of an emergency at the same time.
There are two different types of interconnectable alarms. They can connect using radio frequencies or with a wired connection.
The wire used is the same as what you might use for your doorbell. Of course, this could be an obtrusive solution if you have your home decorated just the way you like it.
The wireless alarms can connect easily by pressing a button on all the alarms individually. From then on, they’ll communicate with each other.
Location, Location, Location
Before you rush off and buy a smoke alarm, plan what you’ll need and where you’re going to install them.
You will want to have a heat alarm in the kitchen. If you have a garage, it would be a good idea to put a heat alarm in there too.
Optical alarms should go in the living and dining rooms, in the hallway and at the top of the stairs.
In the bedrooms, you can install either optical or ionisation smoke alarms.
You should also have at least one CO alarm on each level of your home, particularly near sleeping areas. It would also be a good idea to fit them in rooms with devices which can produce the gas. These include boilers, gas cookers and solid fuel appliances like fireplaces.
Now I don’t know where you live, so let’s assume it’s a two bedroom home.
That could mean 1 heat alarm, 4 optical, 2 ionisation and 2 CO alarms.
Sounds like a lot, but just remember that you can never have too many smoke alarms in your home.
- Dwellings with no smoke alarm accounted for 38% of deaths in home fires in Great Britain. Nearly one-fifth of deaths occurred where no smoke alarm worked.
- No smoke alarm was present in 12,000 (31%) dwelling fires in 2013-14 in Great Britain.
- A smoke alarm was present but did not operate in 19% of dwelling fires and was absent entirely in nearly one-third.
- Working smoke alarm ownership increased rapidly from 8% in 1988 to 70% in 1994 in England and has continued to rise in recent years to 88% in 2011.
The Where And How
Now you’ve got your smoke alarms, you don’t want to delay installing them. They’re no good sitting in their packaging.
You’re twice as likely to die in a house fire where there’s no smoke alarm, than in one that does. So grab your tools, step ladder and halve your chances as soon as possible.
Firstly, you need to read the manual it comes with for specific instructions for installation and use.
When possible, the smoke alarm needs to be fitted in the centre of the ceiling. This is because smoke rises, and this is where the smoke will build up first.
The alarm needs to also be at least 30cm (12”) away from walls or light fittings. So in the event that you have a light in the centre, place it to the side. And if you have a sloped ceiling, then place it 90cm (36”) away from its peak.
Take care to avoid mounting smoke alarms next to, or above, heaters and vents.
Also, make sure you mount it where it is easy to access. Placing it above the stairs is just making life needlessly difficult for yourself.
When it comes to fitting the smoke alarm, take the mounting bracket and mark the holes. Once you’ve drilled the holes, you can then screw the mounting bracket to the ceiling. Then just install the batteries and attach it to the bracket.
You can fit CO alarms wherever is most convenient for you.
This is because carbon monoxide is often distributed evenly throughout the room and house.
Testing And Looking After Your Alarms
You should be testing your smoke alarms weekly. Just a quick press of the button will let you know if the battery and alarm are still in good working order.
Make it part of your routine.
Maybe test it on a Sunday evening before your family chill in front of the TV. Or set an alarm on your phone to remind you to do it.
Do it now if you want, I don’t mind waiting…
…Don’t attempt to test your alarm using a real flame, as this in itself is a hazard.
It would be a bit silly if you ended up starting a fire when trying to test the smoke alarms.
Pressing the button is more than sufficient to check that the electronics and horn are operational.
But if you really do have your doubts, then you can test it using a synthetic smoke aerosol. This is safe, and it ensures enough smoke enters the alarm to properly test it.
And remember that if you have a standard battery alarm, then you’ll need to replace the battery at least once a year. You could make the decision to change them when the clocks go back. Or you could pick a holiday or birthday which you always change the batteries on.
If your alarm chirps every 30 seconds or so, then that could be a sign that the batteries are on their last legs. This happens when the battery has dropped to a low voltage.
If your long-life battery is coming to the end of its life, then it will warn you in a similar way.
And whatever alarm you have, you should also be cleaning it from time to time. A build-up of dust, fibres or cobwebs can interfere with its operation. Using a vacuum cleaner around the case of the alarm and wiping it with a cloth is all you need to do to maintain any alarm.
Every alarm only really has a life of around 10 years, so you should replace them after this time. Some smoke alarms have a date printed on them, to let you know when to change the alarm. If not, just write the date on the alarm when you install it.
That way, there will be no arguments about when you need to replace the smoke alarms.
For this reason as well, when you move into a new home, you should change the smoke alarms.
You can never be sure how well the previous occupants looked after them, or how old they are.
And likewise, check that you’re buying your smoke alarms from a reputable company. Some places online sell stock at a bargain price because it’s been sitting in a warehouse for years. When a smoke alarm only lasts 10 years, you don’t want to buy one that’s spent 5 years in their warehouse.
So when it comes to fire safety, it’s always best to be on the right side of caution.
For The Hearing-Impaired
Many people are deaf or have hearing problems, and a conventional smoke alarm isn’t going to work for them. And if you or someone you live with has a hearing impairment, then you’ll want to consider their needs.
Numerous devices exist to overcome this problem.
You can have a strobe light which links to your alarms either using a wired connection or wirelessly. This provides a visual warning which will make them aware of the potential fire.
Vibration pads exist which will mean someone who is hard of hearing will still wake if a fire breaks out in the night. These too can connect to your smoke alarm system. But you can also purchase ones which will activate when they hear a smoke alarm going off.
Ensure your family know what to do if they hear a smoke alarm go off.
Have an escape plan and keep the route clear at all times, and call the fire brigade as soon as you’ve got everyone to safety.
Buy and fit your smoke alarms to make sure you have those few extra precious minutes to make a safe escape.
Each year, there are over 50,000 fires in homes, accounting for 500 deaths and 11,000 injuries.
That means on average there are 140 home fires, 30 injuries and at least one fire-related death in the UK every day.
So ensure that you look after your fire alarms, then they can look after you too. Check that they work, replace batteries every year if necessary, and fit a new smoke alarm every 10 years.
If they are without a working battery, they are powerless to help you in an emergency.