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Smoke Alarms and Electrical Fire Safety

on May 26, 2016

Smoke Alarms and Electrical Fire SafetyElectrical fires are account for nearly 500 deaths and more than 1,400 injuries in the United States every year.  Prevention is the best defense against injury, death, and home damage, but mistakes can happen and you can’t completely account for every problem every time.  Items outside of your control can lead to fires just as effectively as a lack of care or electrical maintenance can.  Rodents and vermin can nest in wiring and chew through insulation while leaking roofs or plumbing can lead to an electrical short that starts a fire.  Whatever the reason, when prevention fails your only recourse is an early warning.  The sooner you know that a fire is present, the faster you can respond and the higher your likelihood of survival.

Types of Smoke Alarms

The earliest smoke detection devices were heat detectors.  These smoke detectors simply measure the temperature of the air in much the same way that thermostat measures air temperature in room. These devices are outdated and should only be used in rooms where a smoke detector cannot be used or for small, confined spaces.  Heat detectors are slower to detect fires and speed is essential.

Smoke alarms, on the other hand, react much faster by detecting the presence of fast-rising smoke in the air.  Smoke detectors are designed with two different detection methods and, while single-type alarms can be purchased, combination smoke alarms cover a much wider range of possible fire scenarios, making them a better precaution.

  • Ionization – A tiny amount of radioactive material creates an ionization circuit within the smoke detector. As smoke filters into the device, it absorbs the alpha particles emitted.  The circuit is interrupted as the alpha particles are absorbed, triggering the detector.  Ionization alarms react to fast-acting, heavy-smoke fires.
  • Photoelectric – Using a light source, a sensor watches the beam for interruptions caused by suspended smoke particles in the air. As soon as a particle scatters a portion of the light beam, the sensor triggers and activates the alarm.  Photoelectric smoke detectors respond best to small, smoldering fires.

Since early warning is essential, interconnected smoke alarms (wireless networked together) are perfect for delivering the fastest response times.  With interconnected alarms, as soon as a single alarm is triggered, every alarm begins to sound.  All occupants are notified of a fire at the same rather than as the smoke reaches their rooms.

Alarm Placement

Where you place smoke alarms in your home is just as important as the type of smoke alarms you’re using.  In most home fires, you have just under a minute to escape unscathed.  Seconds count to help you reach an exit and get away.  Placing smoke alarms to detect a fire early and notify you quickly is essential.  You should always:

  • Place smoke alarms at the highest point in a room
  • Install smoke alarms on every floor of your home
  • Alarms should be located near any known fire hazards
  • Placing an alarm in each room is ideal, place one in each bedroom and main hall

Some ceilings are shaped strangely and require special installation as a precaution. For example, ceilings that end in a corner or triangle as the highest point should have smoke alarms installed 4-inches lower than the apex (the point) of the ceiling.  Consult the National Fire Protection Association’s guide to smoke alarm installation for details on all special-case installations.

A Final Word on Safety

Smoke alarms need to be replaced every 10 years, no exceptions.  Many newer alarms are designed with special 10-year batteries that are charged by house voltage, meaning you never have to replace the battery.  Regardless of whether you’re using a line-voltage alarm or a standard 9-volt battery smoke detector, you need to test your alarms every month.  Any alarms that fail the test need to be replaced immediately, no exceptions.


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