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Last Update:

16 August 2006

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City of Tucson

Smoke Detectors

The most commonly asked questions are:

Why do I need smoke detectors? Most fire deaths happen at night, while people are asleep. This makes early fire detection and warning especially important. Contrary to popular belief, the smell of smoke may not wake a sleeping person. The poisonous gases and smoke produced by a fire can numb the senses and put you into a deeper sleep.

Inexpensive household smoke detectors sound an alarm, alerting you to a fire. By giving you time to escape, smoke detectors cut your risk of dying in a home fire nearly in half. Smoke detectors save so many lives that most states have laws requiring them in private homes. Arizona is one of these states.

How many smoke detectors do I need or is required? According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), minimum protection requires a smoke detector outside each sleeping area 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 room.

Be sure everyone sleeping in your home can hear your smoke detectors' alarms even with bedroom doors closed. If not, or if any residents are hearing- impaired, install additional detectors inside bedrooms. For the hearing impaired, there are smoke detectors that flash a strobe light in addition to sounding an audible alarm.

For extra protection, NFPA suggests installing additional detectors in dining rooms, furnace rooms, utility rooms, and hallways. Smoke detectors are not recommended for kitchens, bathrooms, or garages where cooking fumes, steam, or attics and other unheated spaces where humidity and temperature changes might affect a detector's operation.

Choosing a Detector? Dozens of brands of smoke detectors are for sale in hardware, department, and discount stores. Be sure that the smoke detector you buy bears the label of an independent testing laboratory, such as UL or FM.

Several types of detectors are available. Some run on batteries, others on household current (now smoke detectors have both, usually for new construction or major remodeling). Some detect smoke using an ionization sensor; others use a photoelectric detection system. All approved smoke detectors, regardless of type, will offer adequate protection provided they are installed and maintained properly.

  • Ionization Smoke Detectors- These units detect the fire's visible and invisible smoke particles. Smoke reduces the electric current within the unit, which in turn starts the alarm.
  • Photoelectric Smoke Detector- These units also detect smoke particles, but only those large enough to be "seen" by the unit. The smoke blocks the path of a light beam within the detectors.

Either type of smoke detector can provide your family with an early warning of fire.

There are units available that have both ionization and photoelectric detection within the smoke detector unit. These should improve detector reliability by reducing false alarms.

Why do I get false alarms? A smoke detector false alarm can be initiated by small dirt particles, smoke from cooking, placement to close to flourescent lighting fixtures, and dust or temperature extremes. These may be present in garages, kitchens and attics. Fresh paint fumes can get heavy enough to cause a false alarm, so air out freshly painted rooms. Steam from bathrooms can also cause a false alarm.

Where do I install smoke detectors? Because smoke rises, mount detectors high on a wall or on the ceiling. Wall-mounted units should be hung 6 to 12 inches from the ceiling. A ceiling-mounted detector should be attached at least 6 inches from the nearest wall. In rooms with pitched ceilings, mount the detector at or near the ceilings highest point. Do not place detectors within 6 inches of where the wall and ceiling meet, on either surface. This is a "dead air" space that gets little air circulation. Instructions for installation and placement should accompany the unit. Follow these instructions precisely.

How do I test the smoke detector? All smoke detectors are required to have a test button installed on them; this test button checks all functions of the smoke detector. If your smoke detector does not have a test button, you should replace the unit for one that has one. This test should be done at least once every 30 days.

When do I replace the smoke detector battery? Batteries weaken with age, and must be checked and replace at regular intervals (usually every 9 12 months). Battery power units that are listed by UL or FM will generate a beeping sound (usually at night when you trying to sleep) to indicate when the batteries need to be replaced. Remember having a detector with dead batteries is the same as having no detector at all. There are newer smoke detectors out there that have batteries that last 10 years.

When do I replace the Smoke detector? Studies show that untested smoke detectors lose about half of their dependability after a 5 to 7 year period. Smoke detectors should be replaced about 8 to 10 years. Read the manufacturers instructions as they usually have recommendations.

Do I clean my smoke detector? Yes! Dust can damage your detector's sensitivity. Most units need to be cleaned at least once a year, just use your vacuum cleaner to clean dust out of unit. Read the manufacturers instructions manual.

When the Detector Sounds!!

How your family responds in a fire depends on how well you've prepared.

  • Make sure everyone is familiar with the sound of the detector's alarm.
  • Plan escape routes. Know at least two ways out of each room. Agree on a meeting place outside your home where all residents will gather after they escape.
  • Practice your escape plan at least twice a year, and teach every member of your household these survival techniques.
  • Crawl Low Under Smoke. If you must escape through an area with smoke, crawl to the nearest safe exit on your hands and knees. Smoke and poisonous gases rise. Keep your head 12 to 24 inches above floor.
  • Stop, Drop, and Roll. If your clothes catch fire, stop, don't run. Drop to the ground, cover your face with your hands, and roll over and over to smother the flames.
  • When an alarm sounds, leave the building immediately and go to your meeting place. Then call the fire department from a neighbor's phone.
  • Once you're out, stay out. Never return to a burning building.