Your Smoke Detectors Can Save Your Life. It's Time to Start Taking Care of Them.

Many people fail to maintain their home fire-safety devices, a Consumer Reports survey finds. Here's what you can do to protect yourself and your family.

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Smoke detector testing Photo: iStock

A functioning smoke alarm and carbon monoxide detector could save your life. But many Americans don’t keep their home fire-safety devices up to date and in working order, according to a recent nationally representative Consumer Reports survey of 2,335 U.S. adults (PDF).

The National Fire Protection Association emphasizes that smoke alarms can sense smoke long before people can. And in the event of a fire, you may have as little as 2 minutes to escape safely.

Carbon monoxide detectors are also critical. That is because the gas—which is produced when natural gas, heating oil, propane, wood, coal, or other fuel burns incompletely—can be deadly but is also odorless and invisible.  

At this time of year, many of us are spending more time indoors and maybe even cozying up to a fire or doing extra holiday cooking. So it’s a good time to review your fire-safety practices, starting with checking to make sure your smoke and CO detectors are working properly.

You Probably Need More Than One Smoke and CO Detector

Fire-safety experts say most homes need multiple smoke and CO detectors. But CR’s survey found that 15 percent of people with a smoke or smoke/CO combination unit had only one of those devices.

What you should do: Put a smoke alarm on every level of your home, including the basement, near all sleeping areas, and in each bedroom, according to the National Fire Protection Association. Bedroom alarms are particularly critical if people in your home sleep with their doors closed.

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One surprise: Don’t put smoke alarms directly in kitchens or bathrooms. The smoke and heat in your kitchen, and the steam in bathrooms, can trigger false alarms. Too many of those, and you may be tempted to simply disable your device. Having alarms in the hallway or a central area on each floor and in each bedroom should suffice. 

CO alarms should also be on every level of your home, and in a central location outside each sleeping area, such as a nearby hallway. In addition, local building codes may require the devices elsewhere in your home, too, says Susan McKelvey, a spokesperson for NFPA. Check with your local fire department if you’re unsure. 

For both smoke and CO detectors, choose a model that has been certified by an independent testing laboratory, such as UL. 

For the best protection, have all smoke and CO alarms in your home interconnected and installed by a professional electrician so that when one of them beeps, they all beep. “There are also wireless models that can connect with each other,” says Bernie Deitrick, senior test program leader at Consumer Reports. “That way, if there is a fire in the basement that causes the basement alarm to sound, you’ll hear it upstairs in your bedroom.”

Regularly Check Your Smoke and CO Detectors

Many people with smoke or smoke/CO combos in their homes say they don’t remember the last time they tested the devices, changed the batteries, or installed new detectors, according to CR’s survey. But you can’t just set and forget smoke and CO units indefinitely. NFPA recommends that you periodically test them, change their batteries, and replace the units altogether.

What you should do: Push the test button on smoke and CO alarms once a month. A working smoke alarm may emit three short beeps, or it may emit one long beep, depending on the product’s manufacturer; a CO detector may emit four short beeps or it may emit one long beep.

“To find out what a test should sound like for your alarm, review the product’s instruction manual or check the directions on the back of the alarm,” says McKelvey at NFPA. “It’s also important to look up what the alarm will sound like in an actual fire; in fact, the main message of our fire prevention campaign this month is to ‘learn the sounds of fire safety’ because you need to understand what your alarm is telling you.”

If the alarms don’t beep, replace the batteries. Also install new batteries if any device starts chirping on it’s own, which is a signal the batteries may be running low. 

If the alarm continues to chirp or beep even after putting in new batteries, it’s time for a new device.  

Note that even if you have a newer alarm that is sold with a 10-year battery so that it works throughout the life of the alarm, you should still check the alarm each month. If it doesn’t beep when tested, you’ll need a new alarm. 

Also, don’t keep old devices installed even if they seem to be working properly. You should replace smoke detectors at least every 10 years and CO detectors every five to seven years, says McKelvey.

Don’t Disable a Malfunctioning Device—Replace It

Nearly a third of people say they have disabled a smoke or CO detector in their home either because the device seems too sensitive, chirps for no clear reason or goes off unnecessarily, the batteries keep dying, or some other reason. 

What you should do: If you need to disable a smoke or CO detector, it’s critical that you replace it quickly. Never go without a smoke or CO detector in all necessary spots in your house for any extended period of time.

Rachel Rabkin Peachman

I'm a science journalist turned investigative reporter on CR's Special Projects team. My job is to shed light on issues affecting people's health, safety, and well-being. I've dug deep into problems such as dangerous doctors, deadly children's products, and contamination in our food supply. Got a tip? Follow me on Twitter (@RachelPeachman).