Home Smoke Detectors

The majority of fatal home fires happen at night, when people are asleep.  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 detectors sound as alarm, alerting you to smoke and/or carbon monoxide.  By giving you time to escape, detectors cut your risk of dying in a home fire nearly in half.  Detectors save so many lives that most states have laws requiring them in private homes.

Choosing A Detector

Be sure that the detectors you buy carry the label of an independent testing laboratory.  There are many types of detectors available:  some run on batteries, others on household current; some detect smoke using an "ionization" sensor, others use a "photoelectric" detection system.  Regardless of type, all approved detectors should offer adequate protection provided they are installed and maintained properly.

Is One Detector Enough?

Every home should have a smoke detector outside each sleeping area and on every level of the home, including the basement.  The National Fire Alarm Code, developed by NFPA, requires a smoke detector in each sleeping room for new construction.  On floors without bedrooms, detectors should be installed in or near living areas, such as dens, living rooms, or family rooms.

Be sure everyone sleeping in your home can hear your detectors' alarms.  If any residents are hearing-impaired or sleep with bedroom doors closed, install additional detectors inside sleeping areas as well.  There are special smoke detectors for the hearing impaired; these flash a light in addition to sounding an audible alarm.

For extra protection, NFPA suggests installing 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 exhaust fumes could set off false alarms - or for attics and other unheated spaces where humidity and temperature changes might affect a detector's operation.

Where To Install 

Because smoke rises, mount detectors high on a wall or on the ceiling.  Wall-mounted units should be mounted so that the top of the detector is 4 to 12 inches (10 to 30 centimeters) from the ceiling.  A ceiling-mounted detector should be attached at least four inches (10 cm) from the nearest wall.  In a room with a pitched ceiling, mount the detector at or near the ceilings highest point.

In stairways with no doors at the top or bottom, position smoke detectors anywhere in the path of smoke moving up the stairs.  But always position smoke detectors at the bottom of closed stairways, such as those leading o the basement, because dead air trapped near the door at the top of a stairway could prevent smoke from reaching a detector located at the top.

Don't install a smoke detector too near a window, door, or forced-air register where drafts could interfere with the detector's operation.


Most battery-powered smoke detectors, as well as detectors that plug into wall outlets, can be installed using only a drill and a screwdriver, by following the manufacturer's instructions.  Plug-in detectors must have restraining devices so they cannot be unplugged by accident.

Detectors can also be hard-wired into a building's electrical system.  Hard-wired detectors should be installed by a qualified electrician.  Never connect a detector to a circuit that can be turned off by a wall switch.

Plan And Practice

  • Make sure everyone is familiar with the sound of the detectors' alarms.
  • Plan escape routes.  Know at least two ways out of each room.  Agree on a meeting place outside of your home where all residents will gather after they escape.  Practice your escape plan at least twice a year.
  • Remove obstructions from doors and windows needed for escape.
  • Make sure everyone in the household can unlock doors and windows quickly, even in the dark.  WIndow and doors with security bars should be equippd with quick-release devices and everyone in the household should know how to use them.
  • When an alarm sounds, leave immediately.  Go directly to your outside meeting place and call the fire department.
  • Once you're out, stay out.  Never return to a burning building.
  • Only functioning detectors can protect you.
  • Never disable a detector by "borrowing" its battery for another use.
  • Following the manufacturer's instructions, test all your detectors monthly and install new batteries at least once a year.  A good reminder is when you change your clocks in the spring or fall:  change your clock, change your battery.
  • Clean your detectors using a vacuum cleaners without removing the detector's cover.
  • Never paint a detector.
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