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Life-Saving Safety Tips for Smoke Alarms

Smoke alarms may be the cheapest, easiest and most effective means for protecting your family and your home from a fire - as long as they're functioning. According to the National Fire Protection Association, three out of four in-home fire deaths occur in homes without a working smoke alarm. We've gathered some great information to help you avoid becoming a tragic statistic. You'll learn where to put your smoke alarms, how to maintain them and when to replace them. We'll also show you some cool new options available for homeowners.

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Write Down the Install DateFamily Handyman

Write Down the Install Date

Smoke alarms should be replaced every 10 years. Most manufacturers list the date a smoke alarm was made on the back. That's helpful information if you remember to look for it. Give yourself a proper reminder, and write the date you installed the alarm in big, bold letters on the base plate so you'll notice it every time you change the batteries.

Three things you need to do:

  • Check smoke alarms once a month.
  • Change batteries once a year.
  • Replace alarms every 10 years.
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Protect Smoke Alarms from DustFamily Handyman

Protect Smoke Alarms from Dust

Excessive dust and paint overspray can wreak havoc with a smoke alarm's sensors. Before starting that messy remodeling project, temporarily cover or remove any alarm in harm's way. And if you are painting the ceiling, don't paint over the alarm—that will probably destroy it. Make cleaning your smoke detector part of your post-project cleanup routine.

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Connect Alarms WirelesslyFamily Handyman

Connect Alarms Wirelessly

If a fire triggers an alarm in the basement, will you be able to hear it from your second-story bedroom? Interconnected alarms provide better protection because if one goes off, they all go off, and early detection is key to safely escaping a house fire.

Smoke alarms in new homes are required to be hardwired or interconnected, but now you can get the same protection in your old house with smoke alarms like this one that speak to one another wirelessly. They cost more than a standard alarm, but they're a much cheaper option than installing new wires all throughout the house.

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Save the InstructionsFamily Handyman

Save the Instructions

Not all smoke alarms operate the same. Three chirps every minute may indicate 'low batteries' for one unit and 'end of life' for another. Save the instruction manual so you won't have to guess what your alarm is trying to tell you. Keep the manual in a place you'll remember. If you don't have a file or drawer for manuals, start one. If you have an unfinished basement, nail one up right next to the alarm itself.

Where to install smoke alarms

  • At least one on every level
  • Bedrooms
  • Outside of bedrooms (hallways, etc.)
  • Kitchen (at least 10 ft. away from stove)
  • Living rooms
  • Basement
  • Ceiling near the bottom of stairs leading to the next level

Positioning is critical

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Downsize if You PreferFamily Handyman

Downsize if You Prefer

If you don't like the look of smoke alarms, then smaller is better. Smoke alarms don't have to be big to be effective. This little guy from First Alert is called the Atom. It's a fraction of the size but performs just as well as its larger cousins. Consider a smaller alarm in highly visible areas such as your living room (especially if you have a fireplace).

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Install Strobe Lights for the Hearing ImpairedFamily Handyman

Install Strobe Lights for the Hearing Impaired

People who can't hear an alarm need an alarm they can see. Some strobe alarms include smoke detection. Others are strobe lights only and need to be connected with a compatible smoke alarm.

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Keep the Sensors CleanFamily Handyman

Keep the Sensors Clean

You should always make sure you're minimizing your risk of home fires, but smoke alarms are your last line of defense, so you need to make sure they're clean. Dust can cause a smoke alarm to malfunction. Run a vacuum fitted with a soft brush over them every time you change the batteries, at least once a year.

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Buy a Compatible ReplacementFamily Handyman

Buy a Compatible Replacement

Wiring up a smoke alarm is pretty easy, but connecting it in a harness plug is even easier. When you need to replace your hardwired alarms, take along an old one to the store. Save a bunch of time and buy new alarms that will accept the wiring harness on the old ones. That way all you have to do is plug in the new ones and maybe replace the base. Some new models come with wiring harness plug adapters, which makes matching easier. If your alarms are interconnected, never mix alarms made by different manufacturers.

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Hide a HoleFamily Handyman

Hide a Hole

Painting or retexturing a ceiling is no fun. If you have a hole from a hanging lamp, or a small water stain, cover it up with a smoke alarm. Who cares if it's not interconnected with the other hardwired alarms? There's no such thing as 'too many' smoke alarms ? definitely make sure you have one near your dryer.

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Quiet Nuisance AlarmsFamily Handyman

Quiet Nuisance Alarms

Kitchens are particularly susceptible to 'nuisance' alarms. The horn on a typical alarm won't stop sounding until there's no more smoke to detect, which in a kitchen could take a while. Nuisance alarms are one of the main reasons people disable smoke alarms, and that's not a good idea, especially in the kitchen where the majority of fires start. Now there are smoke alarms available that have a 'hush' button on them. Pushing it will kill the noise long enough for you to air out the room.

Some sensors are more sensitive than others, even if they're the same model. Before you go buy an alarm with a hush button, try swapping out the one in the kitchen with one from another part of the house.

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3 Types of Smoke AlarmsFamily Handyman

3 Types of Smoke Alarms

Hardwired: Hardwired smoke alarms operate off a home's electricity, but still rely on batteries as a backup if the power goes out.

Battery-operated: These units work on battery power alone. Some newer models have batteries that last 10 years.

Interconnected: Most hardwired alarms are interconnected, meaning if one goes off they all do. Battery-operated models can now be wirelessly interconnected.