Is it time to replace your smoke alarms?

Horizontal photo of female hands taking home smoke detector apart with white ceiling background Photo by tab62/Shutterstock

Is it time to replace your smoke alarms? If they’re 10 years old, the answer is heck yes. Quick, to the hardware store! Where you may be confused! There are combo models that also detect carbon monoxide; units that message your phone; alarms suited to smouldering fires (“photoelectric”) vs. fast-flaming fires (“ionization”); strobe light models; even versions that use a voice alert instead of beeping. One recent study showed that a recording of Mom’s voice was three times more likely to wake up children under 12.

Having at least one alarm on each storey and outside sleeping areas is a legal requirement for existing cottages (with additional rules for recent builds), but the choice of features “comes down to personal preference,” says Mike Peake, a fire prevention officer with the Bracebridge Fire Department. Interconnected alarms communicate with each other, either wirelessly—using Wi-Fi or radio frequency (RF)—or because they’re hard-wired together. Peake prefers hard-wired (required in new cottages), but you’ll need a master electrician to set them up. Wireless RF alarms with a battery backup can talk to each other even if the power is out, unlike Wi-Fi. Got a bunkie? Set it up with its own alarm, says Peake. Most interconnected systems have a signal range of about 50 feet. With walls, trees, and other objects in between, “the signal from the cottage would most likely be lost before it gets to the bunkie.”

“Hush” buttons are a smart safety feature; you’re less likely to rip out the batteries during a nuisance alarm. If false alarms are frequent, move the unit, says Peake. Mounting an alarm on the ceiling (at least 12″ away from the wall-ceiling corner) is almost always preferable to the wall, he says. “The first place smoke goes is straight up. Then it spreads.”   

Test your alarms every month. It’s easy: press the Test button (all the interconnected alarms should sound simultaneously). You could have the newest gadgetry on the market, but it’ll only save your life if it’s working.

It’s not just kitchen smoke—bathroom steam can also set off nuisance smoke alarms.

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