Daylight savings time is upon us. Yes, it’s time to perform our semi-annual adjustment to watches and clocks. Are you ready to scramble your body clock again? It is no wonder that accident rates rise after our fall and spring time-change rituals.
But it is also time to maintain one of the most important safety device in our homes, the smoke alarm. Someone had the great idea a few years ago to link the time change with replacement of smoke alarm batteries. It was a stroke of genius to link the fall time change in October with smoke detectors and Fire Prevention Month. But checking in the spring is important too.
So now we have an easy to remember time to check our smoke alarms. So what are we checking? First check the location. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), recommends one smoke alarm on every floor, in every sleeping area, and in every bedroom. That is a minimum number of locations for a single family dwelling. An alarm should also be placed in the hallway outside bedrooms especially if the doors are closed while people are sleeping. It should alarm before the sensor behind the closed door. Early warning is critical. Some locations are not recommended such as bathrooms and kitchens because the humidity or cooking fumes can cause false alarms. Check the location instructions that come with your smoke alarm. Another good source of information is the US Fire Administration web site, http://www.usfa.fema.gov/downloads/pyfff/smkalarm.html .
The simple test is to push and hold the test button. The alarm should sound after one or two seconds. This should be done monthly. If it works, then you know the battery, circuits and horn are functioning. If it does not work, change the battery*. If a new battery doesn’t solve the problem, it is time for a new unit. Replace detectors that are over 10 years old. Can’t afford a new alarm? Many fire departments will provide them free of charge. Check with your local fire station. Some will even install it for you.
*Your smoke alarm may be wired into your home electrical system and not use batteries. These hard wired alarms usually have a power indicator light that glows at all times. An electrician or alarm technician will be required to troubleshoot issues with these alarms. Battery powered units may or may not have an indicator light. If present, it will blink every few seconds to show the battery is functioning.
Most smoke detector batteries will last 12 months. Some of the new smoke detectors have batteries good for 10 years. Changing them at 6 month intervals might be overkill. Check the warning tags and information labels on your smoke detectors for the proper battery change interval and other maintenance. It is critical to check your detectors at least twice a year. Replacing batteries on a regular schedule will also prevent the dreaded middle of the night ‘chirp’ telling you that a smoke detector needs a new battery.
The only other maintenance required is gently vacuuming around the detector to remove dust and debris. Dusty detectors trigger annoying false alarms. Do not grab a can of compressed air to blow out the detector. That can damage the sensors.
Today we have three types of smoke detectors from which to choose. The long time standard, Ionization type, remains the most inexpensive and most common. The newer Photoelectric is becoming more popular and less expensive. Now you can buy combination detectors that provide both technologies. Ionization alarms work best on fires that have open flame. The Photoelectric type provides early warning of smoldering fires. Smoldering fires can be very dangerous as they quietly fill a home with toxic smoke. Smoldering fires claim many lives. In most cases of residential fire deaths, it is smoke, not fire, that kills. The combo alarms are more expensive, but do have the advantage of combining both technologies for early warning. My recommendation is to have both types in the house. However if budget is limiting, get the Photoelectric type. Testing shows a distinct advantage with this type of alarm, alarming as much as 30 minutes before the ionization type alarm starts sounding. Just make sure you have some kind of working alarm in your house.
If winter is still raging where you live, don’t forget to check those carbon monoxide detectors too!
Just a few minutes set aside this weekend can save a life. That life might be yours or a loved one. And don’t forget our senior citizens who may not have the ability to perform these simple checks without assistance.