Installing and maintaining smoke and carbon monoxide (CO) alarms can save your life. Luckily, they’re inexpensive and easy to install.
Basic smoke alarms start at $15, with CO alarms costing $35 and up. Newer models offer more features. For example, interconnected smoke alarms communicate between devices and provide integrated, whole-house protection. Whether the alarms are hardwired or wirelessly connected, with such a system when one alarm detects smoke or CO, all of them will sound.
Every Home Needs Them
Smoke alarms are a must in all homes, and CO alarms are needed for any home with fuel-burning appliances such as a furnace, water heater, range, cooktop, or grill. Even those living in all-electric homes should install CO alarms, because CO can seep into the house from an attached garage or if a backup generator is used too close to your living quarters in the event of a power outage.
You’ll need smoke alarms that detect flaming and smoldering fires for each bedroom, with at least one alarm installed on each floor, including a finished attic and the basement. You should also have a CO alarm on each living level, in the basement, and near (not inside) an attached garage.
Before you shop, check regulations in your region. What you need, including types of alarms and their placement, can vary. Also, some insurance companies offer a 5 percent discount for homes with smoke alarms.
Smoke Alarm Basics
Fires burn differently: Some flare, some smolder. Make sure you purchase a smoke alarm that can detect both types of fires.
Ionization Smoke Alarms are best at detecting the small particles typical of fast, flaming fires but in our tests, all tested poorly for detecting smoky, smoldering fires. Ionization units are prone to false alarms from burnt food and steam, so don’t mount them near a kitchen or bathroom.
Photoelectric Smoke Alarms are best at detecting the large particles typical of smoky, smoldering fires but poor at detecting fast, flaming fires. Photoelectric units are less prone to false alarms from burnt food and steam, so you can install them safely around the kitchen or bathroom.
Dual-sensor Smoke Alarms combine ionization and photoelectric technology to save you the hassle of installing two separate smoke detectors. But you will still need to install CO units.
Combination Smoke and CO Alarms
Currently no single smoke or CO alarm on the market does it all. A few alarms combine ionization and photoelectric technologies to cover both types of fire, but they don’t detect CO. And those that combine CO and smoke detection are effective for one type of fire, but not both.
Our challenge to manufacturers: Produce a single device that senses both kinds of fire and CO. Until then, combining various types of alarms offers the best protection.
Features to Consider
The latest smoke and CO alarms have added features to better protect you and your family. Here’s what to consider when tailoring the safest combination of alarm options to your household’s needs.
Power Source: Hard-wired smoke and CO alarms tie into your home’s wiring and require professional installation. Battery-only alarms are simple to install, and they work during a power failure, but most batteries require annual replacement. (Lithium batteries may last the life of the alarm.) Plug-in alarms are available, but electric outlets are typically located low on the wall, while the optimal placement for the alarm is on or near the ceiling.
Battery backup: A backup battery for hard-wired smoke and CO alarms offers security in case of a power failure. All battery-powered smoke and CO units warn you when the battery is low. Some provide warning chirps, a low battery voice message, or a visual display.
Interconnectability: You can link some smoke and CO alarms so that all units in the house sound an alarm when any single one is triggered. Some newer homes have wiring already in place to link the alarms. In a home without such wiring, you can buy alarms that interconnect wirelessly. Interconnecting alarms are an important safety feature in a home with multiple levels. A standalone alarm may be adequate for a small, single-level home.
Digital CO Display: This feature displays CO concentrations in parts per million, even when the concentrations are below the level that triggers the alarm. CO alarms certified by UL must go off at no less than 70 ppm, but as little as 30 ppm can harm heart patients, pregnant women, and children. The display can alert you if the CO level is inching up or is higher than usual. Some also show the peak level since they were reset, warning you of any spikes that occurred while you were away. Expect to pay a little extra for this feature: $5 or $10 for standalone units, slightly more for units that can be interconnected.
Hush Button: To silence a nuisance smoke alarm, pressing a hush button is more convenient than disabling the unit, and it avoids the possibility of forgetting to turn it back on. All the smoke alarms we tested had this feature. Some CO and combination CO/smoke alarms can work with a remote control to silence a nuisance alarm.
Special Alarm Types:
• Strobe light alarms are the best warning for the hearing impaired. Some smoke alarms have an integral strobe light, and some accept add-on strobes.
• Voice alarms. Children tend to sleep deeper than adults and may not awaken to a beeping sound. Some smoke and combination CO/smoke alarms use a voice command, but it’s not confirmed whether that’s the most effective way to wake children. According to one study, many pre-teenagers who slept through tone alarms awoke to the sound of their mother’s prerecorded voice.
• Safety lights. Some smoke alarms provide path illumination, a potential life-saver in the dark.
Overall Security Systems: You can incorporate some smoke and CO detectors into a system that sounds an alarm outside and inside the house. It can also have a monitoring service notify the police or fire department or even call your cell phone.
Fresh Is Best—Maintenance Is Critical
Smoke and CO alarms are only protective when installed correctly and if their batteries are replaced annually.
Look for the UL Stamp
Check the package to make sure smoke alarms and CO alarms meet Underwriters Laboratories Standard—look for the UL label. Also look up the date of manufacture printed on the back of the alarms. Devices lose their sensitivity over time, so the fresher, the better.
Install and Maintain Properly
Smoke rises, so mount smoke alarms on the ceiling or high on the wall. Test smoke and CO alarms weekly and vacuum them monthly. Follow the manufacturer’s recommendations regarding battery replacement. Replace CO alarms every five years and smoke alarms every 10 years.
What You Need to Know About CO Alarms
CO alarms should be installed outside of each sleeping area of a house, each level of the house, and in the basement. If your CO alarm is a plug-in model without a cord, it needs to be plugged directly into an outlet. Make sure the outlet is out in the open and not behind furniture, curtains, or other objects that could restrict air flow.
CO alarms with a digital display should be mounted at eye-level so they can be read easily. If the CO alarm is battery powered and doesn’t have a display, it can be mounted anywhere on the wall or ceiling except within four inches of where the wall meets the ceiling. Air doesn’t circulate freely at that level, which will delay the alarm response.
According to First Alert, and similar to other manufacturer’s instructions, you should not install a CO alarm in the following locations:
• Within 5 feet of any cooking appliance.
• Outside or in direct sunlight.
• Garage, kitchen, furnace room, or any extremely dusty, dirty or greasy area.
• Within 20 feet of a fuel-burning heat source (furnace), or fuel-burning appliance (water heater).
• Humid areas: Away from sources of high humidity, such as a bath or shower, sauna, humidifier, vaporizer, or dishwasher. If there are fuel-burning appliances in the laundry room or utility room, mount them in the room but as far away from the appliances as possible.
• Where temperature is colder than 40˚ F or hotter than 100˚ F, including unconditioned crawl spaces, unfinished attics, uninsulated or poorly insulated ceilings.
• In turbulent air: Near ceiling fans, heat vents, air conditioners, fresh air returns, or open windows. Blowing air may prevent CO from reaching the sensors.