Smoke detectors are devices that are mounted on the wall or ceiling and automatically
sound a warning when they sense smoke or other products of combustion. When people
are warned early enough about a fire, they can escape before it spreads. Prices start at
about five dollars.
Every year thousands of people die from fires in the home. Fire kills an estimated 4,000
Americans every year. Another 30,000 people are seriously injured by fire each year.
Property damage from fire costs us at least $11.2 billion yearly. Most fire victims feel
that fire would "never happen to them."
Although we like to feel safe at home, about two-thirds of our nation's fire deaths happen
in the victim's own home. The home is where we are at the greatest risk and where we
must take the most precautions. Most deaths occur from inhaling smoke or poisonous
gases, not from the flames.
Most fatal fires occur in residential buildings between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. when occupants
are more likely to be asleep. More than 90 percent of fire deaths in buildings occur in
A Johns Hopkins University study, funded by the United States Fire Administration,
found that 75 percent of residential fire deaths and 84 percent of residential fire injuries
could have been prevented by smoke detectors.
There are Two Basic Types of Smoke Detectors
1. Ionization detectors - Ionization detectors contain radioactive material that ionizes the
air, making an electrical path. When smoke enters, the smoke molecules attach
themselves to the ions. The change in electric current flow triggers the alarm. The
radioactive material is called americium. It's a radioactive metallic element produced by
bombardment of plutonium with high-energy neutrons. The amount is very small and not
harmful. An ionization detector responds satisfactorily to all types of fires, however it
generally responds quicker to flaming fires.
2. Photoelectric detectors - These type of detectors contain a light source (usually a bulb)
and a photocell, which is activated by light. Light from the bulb reflects off the smoke particles
and is directed towards the photocell. The photocell then is activated to trigger the alarm. A
photoelectric detector generally responds more quickly to smoldering fires.
Choosing a Smoke Detector
When choosing a smoke detector, there are several things to consider. Think about which
areas of the house you want to protect, where fire would be most dangerous, how many
you will need, etc.
East Side Fire Department recommends that every home have a smoke detector outside
each sleeping area (inside as well if members of the household sleep with the door
closed) and on every level of the home, including the basement. On floors without
bedrooms, detectors should be installed in or near living areas, such as dens, living rooms
or family rooms.
The safest bet is to have both types of detectors or a combination detector with a battery
back up. Be sure to check for a testing laboratory label on the detector. It means that
samples of that particular model have been tested under operating conditions. Check to
see if it is easy to maintain and clean.
The placement of smoke detectors is very important. Sleeping areas need the most
protection. One detector in a short hallway outside the bedroom area is usually adequate.
Hallways longer than 30 feet should have one at each end. For maximum protection,
install a detector in each bedroom.
Be sure to keep the detector away from fireplaces and wood stoves to avoid false alarms.
Place smoke detectors at the top of each stairwell and at the end of each long hallway.
Smoke rises easily through stairwells. If you should put a smoke detector in your kitchen,
be sure to keep it away from cooking fumes or smoking areas.
Proper mounting of a smoke detector is also important. You can mount many detectors
by yourself, but those connected directly to your household wiring should have their own
separate circuit and be installed by a professional electrician. If you mount your detector
on the ceiling be sure to keep it at least 18 inches away from dead air space near walls
and corners. If you mount it on the wall, place it 6 to 12 inches below the ceiling and
away from corners. Keep them high because smoke rises.
Never place them any closer than three feet from an air register that might re-circulate
smoke. Don't place them near doorways or windows where drafts could impair the
detector operation. Don't place them on an uninsulated exterior wall or ceiling.
Temperature extremes can affect the batteries.
Keeping smoke detectors in good condition is easy. Always follow the manufacturer's
instructions. Be sure to replace the batteries at least once every year or as needed. East
Side Fire Department recommends changing the batteries in your smoke detectors twice
annually. Most models will make a chirping, popping or beeping sound when the battery
is losing its charge. When this sound is heard, install a fresh battery, preferably an
alkaline type. Keep extra batteries on hand. Check the smoke detector every 30 days by
releasing smoke or pushing the test button. Clean the detector face and grillwork often to
remove dust and grease. Never paint a smoke detector, as it will hamper its function.
Check your detector if you've been away from home for an extended period of time.
If you're looking for a unique gift for somebody, consider giving him or her a smoke
detector. It's an interesting gift that can save lives and it shows that you care.