Emergency 101 – Detect and Protect!

Smoke detectors help protect your family and save lives

by Benton Best – March 7, 2017

Welcome back to Emergency 101.

In other episodes of Emergency 101 we’ve talked about basic fire safety and creating a plan for what to do if there was a fire at your house. But fires aren’t usually noisy and often occur at night time while people are sleeping. In those cases, how would you know if your house is on fire? Do you have the proper tools in place to be alerted if there was a fire in your household? 

In 2014, 3,275 people died in fires in 2014, many of those in homes without properly functioning smoke detectors. In fact, as many as 50% of fire fatalities were actually due to smoke inhalation, not fire, and 43% of civilian deaths occurred in homes with no smoke alarms at all. Today’s segment is designed to help you determine the proper choice, placement, and maintenance of smoke detectors to help prevent you or your family from becoming a statistic like these.

We are going to talk about how to select the proper smoke detector for different rooms of your home and how to properly place smoke detectors. Finally in the second half of the program, we will demonstrate how to check on them regularly to make sure they are in proper working order.

Selecting Smoke Detectors
First, what is a smoke detector? Smoke detectors are not actually set off by fire, rather by the products of combustion. Some fires flare, and some smolder. That is why it is important that you purchase both types of smoke detectors for your home so that they can detect both types of fire. Both have their pros and cons, but later we’ll take about where to place them so they can be most effective for their type of use.
There are two main type of smoke detector which sense products of combustion:

The first is known as an “Ionization” smoke detector. These are best at detecting small particles from combustion which are typical of fast, flaming fires. However, not all fires behave this way. There are many factors which determine the rate of fire spread. Also, these are known to test poorly when detecting smoky, smoldering fires. These types of detectors are also prone to false alarms from burnt food and steam.

The other main type of smoke detector is a “Photoelectric” smoke detector. These are best at detecting the large particles typical of smoky, smoldering fires, but have tested poorly when detecting fast, flaming fires. Photoelectric units are, however, less prone to false alarms from burnt food and steam, so they can be installed around kitchens and bathrooms to prevent those annoying alarms for cooking.

One thing to consider is the idea of a combined Ionization/ Photoelectric smoke detector. It is ok to purchase some of these for your household, however they may still give false alarms if placed in a bathroom or kitchen. Therefore, it is still important to purchase some individual photoelectric smoke detectors for those areas.

Smoke detectors can be found at most hardware stores, household goods stores, or even online. Although you may be tempted to purchase the least expensive smoke detector first, that may not always be the best option to help save lives in your household.

The first thing is to be sure that the smoke detector has been tested and certified by a national laboratory. This can be done by checking for a label such as that from the Underwriters Laboratory.

Something to consider when purchasing a smoke detector is how it will be powered. We highly recommend selecting a detector that has both battery power, and the capability of being interconnected or “hardwired” throughout your home. That way, you have both a constant power supply, and a battery backup if the power is out.

Finally, it is important to make sure that the smoke detector has a very easy “test” function. Later we will talk about how often to test your detectors, but it will be important to have an accessible test button that doesn’t require you to open the device or disconnect it in order to check if it is working.

Placing Smoke Detectors
Now that we’ve talked about how to select a smoke detector, let’s talk about where to place them. Fire research has demonstrated that with today’s modern furnishings, fires can spread much more rapidly than in the past when more natural materials were used. Because of this, having a sufficient number of properly located smoke detectors is essential to maximize the amount of available escape time.

The National Fire Protection Association recommends that, at a minimum, smoke detectors be installed in every room where someone sleeps, as well as outside of every sleeping area. Smoke detectors should also be installed on every floor.

This includes levels of the house without bedrooms. Some other locations for smoke detectors include living rooms, dens, family rooms, hallways and in stairways.
Smoke detectors are usually easy to install with a screwdriver. Just follow the instruction manual that comes with the device.

So where should you physically place the smoke detectors in each room?
Remember that smoke rises so, when installing smoke detectors, mount them high on walls or ceilings. Generally, there should be no more than 12 inches from the ceiling to the top of the alarm.

For rooms with high pitched or vaulted ceilings, leave at least 4 inches from the apex to the top of the detector. With those types of ceilings, the detector shouldn’t be installed lower than 36 inches from the apex.

If possible, also place smoke detectors at the highest point above the top of the stairs.
Smoke alarms installed in basements should be placed on the ceiling at the bottom of the stairs leading to the next level.

As we said earlier, Ionization Smoke Detectors are good at detecting the products of combustion from fast moving fires. That means that these are sufficient to be positioned in most places of the home, however they may give you false alarms if placed near bathrooms or kitchens. A Photoelectric smoke detector could be more suitable for that area and may reduce the urge to disconnect a battery due to false alarms. Because of the chance of fire in kitchens, don’t forget to place a photoelectric smoke detector in or near the entrance to your kitchen. Smoke detectors should be installed at least 10 feet from a cooking appliance in order to minimize false alarms.

Finally, it’s important to note that you shouldn’t install smoke detectors near windows, doors, or ducts where drafts might interfere with operations.
It is also important to remember that smoke detectors are in place for safety, not aesthetics. Never paint smoke detectors or hang things from them.

Maintaining Smoke Detectors
It’s also critical that you regularly test and perform maintenance on smoke detectors. If you don’t keep your smoke detectors in proper working order, they may not save your life.

The first part of maintaining fully functioning smoke detectors is awareness. Most smoke detectors have a green light which is continuously illuminated to demonstrate that the device is in good working order. If the light turns red or flashes rapidly, check the detector. It may have a low battery or be experiencing a malfunction. Consult the manufacturer’s guidance for the steps to check the status of the detector, and consider replacing it if you are unable to correct the issue.

Next, regularly check the power. Even if your detectors are hardwired into your home’s electrical system, it’s important to replace batteries in the smoke detectors twice a year. The easiest way to remember this is to change the batteries in your smoke detectors each time you change your clocks. “Spring forward, fall back with a new battery pack.”

It’s also helpful to write the date on your batteries when they are installed. If it’s six months or more past the date they were installed, the batteries should be replaced.
Next, it’s important to test each detector at least once a month. On most detectors, this can be performed by simply pushing and holding the “test” button until the device emits a warning tone. You should always let others know that you are performing a test prior to doing so in order to avoid confusion. If the detector does not make the proper sound when tested or if it continues to chirp afterwards, you might have a problem. Check the battery and follow the manufacturer’s instructions for assessing the device. It may need to be replaced.

Always use caution when standing on ladders or otherwise reaching to access smoke detectors. While it is important to test the devices once a month, it is not wise to put yourself at risk of injury. Safety first when checking devices.
Finally, consult your manufacturer’s guidance, however typically smoke detectors have a lifespan of no more than 10 years. If you buy a new home or don’t remember when you last replaced your detectors and think it may be more than 10 years old, it’s always better to be safe than sorry. Consider replacing your detectors to better protect yourself and your family.

If your smoke detector activates. Follow the proper procedures for safely evacuating the residence and notify 911 immediately.

Thank you for watching and learning about smoke detectors, hopefully this segment has been helpful. Don’t forget that smoke detectors can save lives. Are yours up to snuff?

Thanks again and we look forward to you joining us again on another episode of Emergency 101, here on Home Page.

Credits:
Idea/Concept: Benton Best
Videography: Andrew Moore
Video Editing: Andrew Moore
Writing: Benton Best
Host: Benton Best
Special thanks to Bonnie Rogers for the use of her home.

Produced by Vogt Media
Funded by UPMC Susquehanna, Dunham’s Department Store

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