Will You be Able to Hear Your Alarms?
The ultimate test for smoke alarms is their ability to wake you when you are asleep. This generally means that the nearest alarm to the bedroom can be no further away than in the next room with the intervening door open.
Hard-wired alarms can be connected together (with a wire) so when one alarm activates, all interconnected alarms go off. Many alarms in new homes have this feature. It means any alarm in the home can awaken you in your bedroom if the nearest alarm is loud enough to do so.
For homes with battery-powered alarms, there are models that contain a radio transmitter that will activate a receiver that can be placed in the bedroom. An advantage of this type is that, when you go on vacation, you can give the receiver to a neighbor who could call the fire department if a fire starts. Of course, these are a lot more expensive than the simple alarms.
All battery-powered and most hard-wired smoke alarms use a high-pitched electronic horn which is difficult for some people to hear. Test alarms before installation to make sure that all members of the household can hear them clearly.
People with hearing impairments can get smoke alarms with bright, flashing lights or vibrating signals. To awaken you, the light needs to be over the head of the bed and should be rated at least 110 candles. Such bright lights must be powered from house power, so if it is battery operated, it is probably not bright enough to use in the bedroom.
Testing and Maintenance
Smoke alarms should be tested at least once a month. All smoke alarms have a test button that you push to check out the entire alarm, including its sensitivity (how much smoke it takes to set it off). If the testing mechanism does not work properly, the alarm should be replaced immediately. Never use open flame devices to test an alarm.
Older adults and the physically impaired may have problems reaching their alarms to test them. There is one brand of smoke alarm on which the test feature can be activated by shining a flashlight on it. Another brand has an automatic test that activates at the same time and day, once a week. These models can be used where proper testing might not otherwise be done.
Smoke alarms need no maintenance other than changing batteries (in those that have batteries) and an occasional vacuuming of dust or cobwebs. Every smoke alarm comes with a homeowner booklet, which describes how to use and take care of that particular alarm. You should read that booklet and keep it in a safe place for future reference.
What if Your Alarm "ACTS UP"?
Smoke alarms are highly reliable but can sometimes be fooled by cooking or steam. If it sounds when there is not fire, it may need to be moved a few feet to a new position where it is not in the way of cooking vapors or steam. It may also have insects in it, so you should take it down and vacuum it out. If it continues to act up, simply replace it with a new alarm. They are inexpensive and can be purchased at any local hardware store.
How Long Should Your Smoke Alarm Last?
Smoke alarms have a useful life of about ten years. At that age they should be replaced, even if they seem to be working. This will assure that the alarm will be working when you need it.
Even though prices of today's smoke alarms are less expensive than you might have paid some years ago, today's alarms are more reliable. Thus, it is usually not worth keeping an old alarm rather than buying a replacement.