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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Replace a home’s older smoke alarms for safer sleeping

Not only should you change your smoke detector batteries every six month, if the unit is 10 years or older, it should be replaced, fire officials say. (Courtesy photo)

If your home’s smoke alarm is 10 years old or older, that should signal it’s time to replace the unit, say Spokane fire officials.

Faithfully changing batteries twice a year for aging equipment isn’t going to improve the odds that its technology will efficiently detect smoke. The U.S. Fire Administration reports that after about a decade, smoke alarms begin to lose sensitivity in detecting fires, and it recommends replacing them.

Today, makers of smoke alarms must include expiration or manufacturing dates, so consumers can check the age of the detectors. Older models without dates are likely expired, or if you live in an home or apartment built before 2007, assume it’s time to replace an existing unit.

“At 10 years of age, a smoke alarm that has a working battery or is a hardwired alarm with a battery backup has a 30 percent chance that it’s not going to detect smoke,” said Elysia Spencer, Spokane Valley Fire Department community risk reduction specialist.

“And it increases exponentially after that.”

The National Fire Protection Association has the same caution to replace fire alarms every 10 years, said Jamie McIntyre, Spokane Fire Department community risk reduction manager. She runs a smoke alarm installation program for low-income homeowners in the department’s service area.

“People aren’t aware that smoke alarms have an expiration date, and that it’s recommended they be replaced,” McIntyre said.

“We focus on making people aware that just like any other appliance you use in the home, the older they get, the less effective they can be.”

According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, about 2,000 people a year die in residential fires nationwide. In a fire, most victims tend to die from inhalation of smoke and toxic gases, not from burns. A majority of fatal fires happen when families are asleep.

Smoke alarms can sound a shrill alarm to give needed time for escape, if kept in working order. Among misconceptions, officials say residents often don’t realize today’s standards for smoke alarms. The recommendations call for a detector in every bedroom, in addition to one on every level, and at least one in the hallway leading to sleeping quarters.

Michael Miller, Spokane Fire Department fire marshal, recommends a double-alarm or interconnected system so that when one unit goes off, it activates others.

“You should have alarms on each level, alarms in bedrooms,” he said. “If you have a common hallway to your sleeping area, you should have one there, and that would constitute the one on that level.”

For a basement level, “I’d recommend placing it near the stairs in a position leading to the upper level, near the opening of the ceiling of the basement that leads to the upper level. Smoke will find the highest point.”

People also aren’t always aware there are two different types of smoke alarms based on the type of detection sensor: ionization and photoelectric. Homes should have at least one of each or a combo-unit incorporating both technologies.

Ionization alarms tend to be quicker to warn about fast-flame fires. Photoelectric alarms, which use a light beam to help detect smoke, typically are quicker to go off for slow smoldering fires. Residents also can install dual-sensor units that combine both types of technology, but these units tend to be more expensive.

Spencer recommends that people also check labels for the Underwriter Laboratories seal as a code authority, meaning units are certified and tested.

“If you buy a smoke alarm that doesn’t have a UL label, it’s either counterfeit or from overseas and doesn’t actually meet those requirements,” she said.

Among other fallacies, people often assume that if they test a detector by pressing a button on the device, that means the smoke detector is in working order to detect smoke too, Spencer added.

“If you press the button, and it goes beep, that’s testing the electrical component,” she said. “It’s not guaranteeing you the alarm is working and detecting smoke. That’s why it’s so important at that 10-year mark to replace the alarm.”

“Some of the newer alarms now do have a low battery chirp and a sightly different chirp if the device is near end of life depending on how expensive of a smoke alarm you get.”

Fire departments still urge changing detector batteries at least once a year, or every six months. Just don’t assume that’s good for 1990s-era units or older, Spencer added.

She said one Spokane Valley resident had carefully written on a sticky note a long list of multiple battery replacement dates for an older smoke alarm, but when the firefighters tested it over a flame, it failed.

“She thought she was safe.”

Following newer standards for household smoke alarms usually catches up with people when they try to sell a home, Spencer said. And sellers usually are required to add more.

“I’ve seen homes where they literally have smoke alarms in every room, but the minimum baseline has changed from the one smoke alarm in your home,” she said. “If you have a five-bedroom tri-level, you need seven smoke alarms.”

Adding to the safety list, fire organizations provide other considerations:

If updating or building, research interconnected smoke alarms, and units that use the home’s wiring with battery back-up.

Check manufacturer’s instructions, but typical smoke alarm placement includes putting them on the ceiling or high on the wall, since smoke rises.

Don’t install a smoke alarm in the kitchen, because that location would be more likely to sound a nuisance alarm during cooking.

Check if an alarm has a “hush button” so you don’t ever have to remove a battery to silence a nuisance alarm.

Chances are, if it’s time to replace smoke detectors, your carbon monoxide detectors are ready to be switched out as well. Most have warranties that end after five to seven years.