According to the U.S. Fire Administration, there were 1,240,000 home fires in 2013 that resulted in 15,925 injuries, 3,240 deaths, and over $11.5 billion in property damage. The deadliest part of home fires is not the fires themselves, but the smoke. Smoke detectors are an easy solution that can keep your family safe, but many people fail to maintain their smoke detectors or keep them in good working order.
Smoke contains both carbon monoxide and particulates (or very small pieces) of whatever is burning. These particulates often contain deadly chemicals. When carbon monoxide is inhaled, it decreases the amount of oxygen in the body, and can cause headaches, asthma, and heart problems. If inhaled at high quantities or for extended periods of time, it can kill.
Good smoke detectors should be working 24 hours a day. There are three main types of smoke detectors, ionization, photoelectric, and duel sensor.
Ionization detectors are the most common type of smoke detector, used in over 90% of homes. These detectors have a miniscule amount of Americium-241, a radioactive material, between two metal plates. When smoke flows through the chamber it disrupts the ions and causes the alarm to sound. While popular, ionization detectors are not the best option for homes because they often fail to detect slow-burning, smoldering fires which account for the majority of house fires. Ionization alarms are also susceptible to false-tripping. If you have an alarm that frequently goes off from cooking or shower steam, it is probably an ionization alarm.
Photoelectric detectors are more reliable at detecting all kinds of fires. These detectors use a light source (usually a LED light) that points in a straight line across the inner chamber. A light sensor below detects the light. When smoke enters the chamber, the light scatters and the light sensor sets off the alarm. Studies have found that photoelectric detectors respond to smoldering fires 30 minutes quicker than ionization detectors.
Dual sensor detectors use both ionization and photoelectric sensors. This sounds like the best option, but the standards ruling these detectors are almost non-existent. Many dual sensor detectors have one broken function, or have such different sensitivity monitors between the two functions that one never works.
Which detector is in your home? Many people are not sure because their house cam equipped with one. To find out what kind of detectors are installed in your home, inspect the inside or back of the alarm. Ionization detectors include a warning about Americum-241 or generally about radioactive material. Photoelectric alarms will include the word “photoelectric” or have an “I” on it.
Most fire safety experts recommend photoelectric alarms. Some recommend dual sensor alarms, but these are also subject to frequent false-tripping which often causes people to remove the batteries or become de-sensitized to the alarms.
Tips from fire injury-prevention groups include:
- Interconnect your smoke detectors so when one triggers, they all trigger
- Test smoke detectors once a month by holding down the test button
- Have a smoke detector on every level of the house and in every bedroom
- Replace smoke alarms every 10 years
Following basic safety rules and completing simple tasks like checking batteries can save a life.