Smoke Alarms

In 2011, there were a total of 1,389,500 fires in the US, causing 3,995 deaths, 17,500 injuries and $11.7 billion in losses (FEMA). In 2013, every 85 seconds, a home fire was reported and one civilian fire death happened every 2 hours 42 minutes (NFPA).

Is there a way to stop these fires? Yes by taking precautions, but accidents do happen.  And if you can’t entirely prevent them, you can at least reduce the amount of damage they cause. Three out of every five home fire deaths resulted from fires in homes with no or out of order smoke alarms. No smoke alarms were present in more than one-third (37%) of the home fire deaths (NFPA). So are we actually taking enough precaution to combat this growing problem of residential fires?

Why You Need Smoke Alarm?

Fires can break out at any time of the day, and a smoke detector might mean the difference between life and death. A fire spreads within seconds and can engulf your entire residence before you even realize something’s wrong. A timely warning is vital. And smoke alarms are designed to do just that.

  • Early Warning

    Most often, the first hint of a fire is the smell of smoke. This typically happens before you can see the flames or feel the heat. A good smoke detector is far more sensitive to the presence of smoke than your nose, and can detect long before you can.

  • Fire is Not Your Only Problem – Smoke Kills Too

    While you may think that a fire breaking out is your biggest concern, you should know that what usually kills or causes permanent injury to a fire victim, is smoke inhalation. This smoke is dangerous since it contains carbon monoxide which is an odorless, colorless and poisonous gas that blocks the oxygen supply to the brain.

  • Works While You Sleep

    When you’re asleep, you may not be able to react to the smell of smoke or the heat of a fire in a timely manner. By the time you realize that it is not a dream, it might be too late. You might already have inhaled a fatal amount of carbon monoxide. A smoke detector is designed to wake up even the soundest of sleepers.

Types of Smoke Alarms

Smoke alarms are not the same as smoke detectors. A smoke alarm detects smoke and triggers the alarm. A smoke detector is one part of a fire alarm system that uses a separate fire alarm control unit. The detector senses the smoke and sends a signal to an off-site monitoring facility that contacts the fire department directly. It is important that you know the difference to fully understand what you are actually buying in the end.

There are two types of smoke alarms:

  • Ionizing Alarm - This is usually more receptive to a flaming fire, for instance a pan fire.

  • Photoelectric Alarm - This is designed to be more responsive to a smoldering fire, like one caused by as burning cigarette dropped on a sofa.

A combination Alarm combines these two types to make a hybrid system. The National Fire Protection Association recommends you use a combination alarm in your home to ensure maximum protection.

How Do Smoke Alarms Work?

The two types of smoke alarms use different technologies to operate.

Ionization Smoke Alarms

This type works with a battery and two small plates separated by just over a centimeter. The battery charges these plates; one is given a positive charge, the other, a negative charge. The space between the two plates is ionized and a small current of electricity is created between them. When smoke enters this area, the current is disturbed, sounding the alarm.

Photoelectric Smoke Alarms

Unlike ionization alarms, photoelectric smoke alarms do not involve the use of any radioactive elements. This type uses a beam of light emitted by an LED, shone over a small photoreceptor. When smoke enters the alarm, this beam of light is disrupted, causing the photoreceptor to sound the alarm.

A Few Considerations Before You Buy a Smoke Alarm

Convinced you need to buy a smoke alarm? Before you go out shopping for one, you need to take a few considerations into account:

  • Safety Certification Your smoke alarm should be certified by the Underwriters Laboratory, Inc., an independent organization that tests the efficiency of such equipment.

  • Types You need to know what type is right for you. Ionizing smoke alarms are better at detecting rapidly spreading fires, whereas the photoelectric detectors are designed for smoldering fires. Know what type suits your needs t before you purchase either of these, or a dual alarm.

  • Interconnected Alarms Do you need the alarm system spread throughout your house? If yes, you need to consider this before you buy.

In 2007-2011, smoke alarms sounded in half of the home fires reported to the US fire departments (NFPA). It is alarming that the other half of the homes in US are not taking this deadly matter seriously. Make sure you’re not part of this other half. Better safe than sorry.



Q:Which is better for a standard home a photoelectric or ionization smoke alarm?

A:Both are commonly used smoke alarms. A photoelectric alarm is more responsive to smoldering fires whereas an ionization smoke alarm is more responsive to flaming fires. Both alarm systems aim at protecting homes from fires, and work in different ways. It is recommended you use both types of smoke alarms in your home for maximum effectiveness. It is also possible to find single smoke alarms devices that use both technologies.

Q:Can steam set off a smoke alarm?

A:Most smoke alarms use ionization technology to detect smoke. When particles of smoke enter the ionization chamber in the sensor, the particles become neutralized and signal the alarm to go off. These sensors react to steam (water vapors) the way they react to smoke. This can lead to false alarms.

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