What You Need to Know About Smoke Detectors

Everyone dreads the idea of a fire destroying his or her home. It's hard to imagine the treasured possessions accumulated over a lifetime turned to ashes and charred remains. Even more difficult is coping with the irreplaceable loss of loved ones. Fortunately, much of this could be prevented. The number of reported fires in houses with smoke alarms is 10 times less than in those without alarms.

Most people realize that detectors are their best protection in a fire yet approximately 13% of Canadian households don't use them. A lack of information and reluctance to make the investment seem to be the main reasons. These homeowners put themselves in danger when they are most vulnerable. Statistically, the worst fires occur in the evening when people are sleeping. By the time they smell smoke or feel heat, the fire is rampant and the occupants of the home can become trapped or overcome by the carbon monoxide present in smoke. Alarms are designed to sound at the first sign of smoke increasing the odds that both the residents and their possessions will survive.

It's important to be aware that there are different types of fires and different types of detectors. Ionization alarms are triggered when smoke particles interrupt the ion current that flows between two metal plates. The advantage of these detectors is that the smoke can be invisible to the human eye, while remaining "visible" to the ionization detector. The ion conductivity is produced by a tiny amount of radioactive material-Americium-241 (or AM-241). Some research has been done which indicates ionization detectors may not be very good at detecting smouldering fires which produce small amounts of particles. These detectors work best in smoky fires such as kitchen fires.

Photoelectric devices work on an entirely different principle-smoke particles cross a steady beam of light and set off the alarm much like a motion sensor. There are conflicting reports on the efficiency of this detector and it is recommended that homeowners invest in a dual photoelectric/ionization device which combines both functions. At the very least, if you already have an ionization device you should invest in a photoelectric version and visa versa.

For greater protection install at least three alarms-one in the living room (41 percent of fatal fires start in the living room), one near the bedroom and one place few people think of-in the basement. Hot water heaters and furnaces in the basement can pose a significant fire hazard especially since a small fire there is likely to go unnoticed until the fire is too large to control.

You should also consider wiring your detectors for a chain-reaction. Normally, an isolated fire would have to burn intensely before setting off alarms at the opposite end of the home. Chain-reaction alarms sound simultaneously at the first sign of smoke giving your family valuable minutes to get to safety. When you purchase alarms, ask about connective wiring options.

Remember that tradition noise-producing alarms are ineffective for occupants who are deaf or hard of hearing. There have been great new innovations in the warning signal itself. A new product, The Scent of Life Signalling Device releases a pungent aerosol spray into the air when smoke is detected. This device also works well in high noise level areas. For more information on this product check out http://www.globweb.com/paradigm/solmain.htm. Strobe light alarms are also effective for the hearing impaired but must be placed well within view. If you opt for a strobe alarm for residential use be sure to place one in the bedroom.

The annual fire-death rate in houses without alarms is 130 deaths per million households. By installing several battery-operated detectors in each house, that rate would be reduced by almost two-thirds. Battery operated models range from $20-50. The safety rates are even better with wired-in smoke detectors which have been mandatory in new housing since 1980. These devices are more heat-resistant and reliable than battery operated alarms. Wired-in systems cost approximately $500.

Whichever system you choose be sure to follow installation and maintenance instructions. Battery operated models will either use staggered beeps or a blinking light to indicate low power. Don't wait that long though-install new batteries when you change your clocks for daylight savings time in the spring and fall. You and your family will sleep easy knowing you're protected. Hopefully the only alarm you'll hear when you're sleeping will have a snooze button!