First Alert SA710CN and SA320CN smoke detectors get top marks.
When it comes to safety, one can never be too careful. That’s why installing smoke detectors in new homes is a requirement in most states.
Specific smoke detector regulations vary from state to state. For example, Alabama adopted the United States NFPA code, which requires electrically powered smoke alarms outside sleeping areas and in each sleeping room. It also requires a smoke alarm on each floor of the structure. There is no requirement for a specific type: ionization, photoelectric or dual. Any of the three will meet the minimum requirements. Colorado, on the other hand, does not have a state law requiring smoke alarms in residential occupancies. However, the vast majority of local jurisdictions have adopted the International Code set, which requires residential occupancies to be equipped with smoke detectors.
Many different brands of smoke alarms are available on the market, but the majority fall under two basic types: ionization and photoelectric.
Ionization smoke alarms
Ionization smoke alarms have a small amount of radioactive material between two electrically charged plates, which ionizes the air and causes current to flow between the plates. When smoke enters the chamber, it disrupts the flow of ions, thus reducing the flow of current and activating the alarm. In other words, they are more responsive to actual flaming fires.
For ionization smoke detectors, ConsumerSearch.com recommends the Kidde RF-SM-DC. This battery wireless alarm will communicate with up to 24 other alarms in the home if it detects a threat. It runs at about $35 per unit. If you’d rather go the cheaper, hard-wired route, Kidde has units with a dust cover that protects against contamination. It also has a prestripped wiring harness with an easy off cap that eliminates the time needed to use a stripper tool, while tinned strands increase conductivity and wire nut grip. It can also be interconnected with other units. This option is about $11.
Photoelectric smoke alarms
Photoelectric alarms aim a laser into a sensing chamber at an angle away from the sensor. Smoke enters the chamber, reflecting light onto the light sensor, triggering the alarm. This means they are more responsive to fires that begin with a long period of smoldering.
Michael Bartleman of Beazer Homes prefers photoelectric smoke detectors. “Ion is less sensitive and requires cleaning more often to work properly,” he says.
The First Alert SA710CN is the way to go, according to ConsumerSearch.com. The 85-decibel alarm from BRK Brands, Inc. also has a blinking power light to let you know it's working. These detectors are just a more expensive than the wired ionization units at about $13 a pop. Wireless photoelectric detectors are about $45.
Which to Choose?
There is no hard evidence that an ionization smoke detector is better than a photoelectric one, and vice versa. This is because they work best in different, yet equally destructive fires. So the answer is neither. Or both! The USFA recommends that every home be equipped with both ionization detectors and photoelectric detectors, or dual sensor alarms.
Dual-sensor alarms contain both ionization and photoelectric smoke sensors. Many of these alarms feature intelligent sensing technology that can tell the difference between real emergencies and false alarms.
ConsumerSearch.com recommends the First Alert SA320CN. These are more expensive than hardwired ionization and photoelectric detectors at about $22 each. Wireless units will cost about $69.
“The most important thing is to make sure the smoke alarm has a UL-listing,” says Heather Caldwell, marketing and communications manager for Kidde Fire Safety. “That ensures the alarm has been tested and listed to the independent national standard for smoke alarms. Homebuilders also may be interested in features that can help reduce callbacks for them and nuisances for their customers/homeowners.”
She also recommends looking for detectors with:
- A 10-year warranty
- A test and/or silence button to check for failures and shut off in non-emergencies
- Combination smoke/carbon monoxide alarms
Signature Homes uses BRK smoke detectors in its Woodhaven and Garin Corners homes and Kidde in its Galt community.
There are other adaptive smoke detectors that can be used in home settings. These alarms can be amplified, linked to strobe lights, vibrate and even talk. These devices are perfect for the disabled.
Aspirating smoke detectors have a high sensitivity to the smallest amounts of smoke. They are over 10 times more sensitive than general point detectors. These types of units have a built-in fan or pump to suck in air through a piping system into to a laser sampling chamber. The chamber is based on a nephelometer that detects the presence of smoke particles suspended in air by detecting the light scattered by them in the chamber. This means that it can detect smoke before it is even seen, and not get confused by dust.
“However, they may not be the most cost effective way to go,” says Zeena Abidi, marketing coordinator of Hochiki America Corporation. “The aspirating ones are generally recommended when high-sensitivity is needed i.e. data centers, museums, etc.
“Smart” detectors are also entering the market, but builders should go with tried and true units that have been on the market for a while. Lest they get roped into a Nest-like fiasco, where the hand-waving feature that was meant to silence nuisance alarms in the talking Nest Protect detector was found to possibly delay an alarm in case of a real fire.
After you select the fire alarms, now it’s time to consider a monitoring service. After all, what good is a detector if there is no one around to hear it?
“Traditional smoke detectors work by sounding off when smoke or heat is detected,” says LifeShield public relations specialist Allison Gumbs. “Unfortunately, this means they are only effective when someone is in the house because it is up to that person to call the fire department when they hear the alarm sounding. If someone is not home to hear the fire alarm and call for help, pets are at risk as well as the home and all of its contents.”
In new homes, builders should consider wired systems with a battery backup. LifeShield, a DirectTV company, has a patented Fire Safety Sensor that works in tandem with both hardwired and battery-powered smoke detectors. Once an alarm sounds, the adjacent sensor “hears” the sound of the existing hardwired detectors and reacts by dispatching the local fire department immediately.
LifeShield is partnered with Protection 1, the second largest home security provider. Through this partnership, there are monitoring services from five UL listed monitoring centers. That means you are protected with continuous monitoring through five interconnected command centers located across the United States. Each monitoring center has a triple redundant system including the primary system, a back-up system and a disaster recovery center to provide fail-safe security.
“Since many fires start when residents are asleep, not at home, or simply unaware, this added layer of protection can be a lifesaver,” Gumbs says.