Home & Garden Columns

About the House: Smoke Decectors Can Save Your Family and Neighbors

By Matt Cantor
Friday October 27, 2006

One of the toughest parts of my job has always been finding the justification to support large expenditures on my client’s part. While it may be fun to spend someone else’s money, you won’t make much of a reputation telling everyone that they need a new foundation. You have to parse the good-enough from the doesn’t-cut-it and that’s often disconcerting (for me and for my client). 

On the other hand some calls are easy. Anything that’s somewhat life threatening and or life saving and involves the amount of money in the average person’s wallet is a clear and resounding ‘yea.’ Locks on windows that prevent escape can be removed without any cost if the client is amenable and possessing of a screwdriver. 

A double cylinder lock (locks from both sides) can prevent escape in a fire and can be replaced with a single cylinder type for about 20 bucks and the same screwdriver. The replacement has a thumb turn on the inside and can be opened almost unconsciously by a fleeing would-be victim. 

Old breakers can be replaced by able persons for about five bucks a-piece (don’t try this unless you have real experience and knowledge of high watts) and improve the fire safety of the building. 

These are just a few examples and there are many more. I love these trick or treat inspection gimmies and try to throw lots of them out in my daily work because a) they put smiles on faces and b) they can save lives when the dollars are shy. 

The one I love the most is particularly timely just now as the clocks are about to change and it is our new little friend the smoke-detector. I say new because the device isn’t even 40 years old (invented in 1969 by Kenneth House and Randolph Smith in the U.S.). Also, I mention the changing of the clocks because it’s time to change the batteries and certainly time to review the state of your smoke-detectors. 

If you’re a landlord (Ooooo, evil word in Berkeley. You must be keep slaves and worshiping Baal if you own an apartment) you should be particularly sensitive to the state of smoke-detectors. I’ve seen a lot of disabled smoke-detectors in tenant occupied spaces in my years in the biz and it behooves (you cloven heel, you) landlords to check and service smoke-detectors regularly since tenants tend to be less aware of these issues. 

It’s also common for the young immortals of our dear Alma Mater to remove batteries that are annoyingly chirping (in need of changing) or to steal the battery for more amusing uses (like that cool radio controlled monster truck). 

Many agencies and yours truly recommend changing smoke-detector batteries when you change the clocks, twice a year. I recommend buying 9V batteries, which are pricey, in large allotments when the sales are on at the drug store, at places like Costco or other discount stores. Check the sales and stock up on regular Alkaline 9V batteries (these are the rectangular ones with the two terminals on one end). I don’t recommend Lithium long-life batteries since they don’t tend to last nearly as long as reputed and they tend to make us forget about servicing the smoke detector. 

If you keep half a dozen or more in the house, you’re more likely to change them when they start to chirp and less likely to just back that battery off 1/8” as I so often see. Here’s a protocol I practice. Never back the battery off. Just take it out. That way you won’t think there’s a battery inside (nor will the next person). You have to look carefully to see the difference between a backed-off battery and a fully installed one. The other protocol is that I never leave the cover on a smoke-detector that is missing a battery. Leave it open as a reminder if you have to go get a battery and make the replacement a priority. In Berkeley we would call that “taking care of yourself” and that’s a GOOD thing. It’s also taking care of your family, your tenant and the neighbors, since all those people may be affected. Your fire, can quickly become a fire for others. If you live in an apartment or condo complex, your fire can ruin the day or life of many others so it’s vital that you keep good batteries in these things.  

It’s like voting. If you couldn’t vote (all too new to you women out there) you’d be terribly excited when it came along and you’d rush to the polls as those, new to free-elections, tend to do (ah if we could only turn out in numbers like that).  

We should treat smoke-detectors like that. They are life-saving miracles that cost less than a typical lunch out and the batteries cost about the same as a Grande Decaf at Starbucks. There is no reason in the world not to have plenty of them and to keep them fully charged and ready to scream. By the way, do test your smoke-detectors when you put the batteries in and, at least, seasonally. Do it when you clean the house (it also helps to vacuum the detectors itself). Keep a rod of some sort around to test them with so that you won’t need a ladder.  

Smoke-detectors don’t do a very good job when the smoke can’t reach them so here’s some general thinking on where to put them and roughly the number you will need. This also comes from the NFPA (National Fire Protection Agency) and most local fire departments. 

Smoke-detectors need to be on both sides of the door to your sleeping room (and everyone else’s sleeping room too). That means that you want one in the hall or the living room and that you want one in each of the bedrooms. You also want to have at least one on every level of the house. If you have a three-bedroom, split-level house, this means you’ll want to have five detectors. They’re easy to install and if you want to use some two-part Velcro to put them up, that’s just fine. 

Smoke rises (Because it’s hot and has a lower density than air) and this means that it heads for the ceiling first. If the smoke-detector is on the wall, it takes longer to go off and longer to wake you up. Put smoke-detectors on the ceiling and try to place them at least 4” away from the corner since smoke tends to curl past the corner and hits the ceiling a few inches in from the wall. Place detectors on the highest part of the room if there is a change in height (even though this will make battery replacement more difficult). You might want to get yourself a good ladder for installation and servicing of these. 

A few notes on smoke-detectors. There are different types and some are better than others but the primary safety, in my never-humble opinion, is in have plenty of them. Having 3 or more working smoke-detectors virtually assures that you’ll be awoken from your reverie in time to preempt this most terrible and unnecessary of deaths. 

Consider installing at least one “hard-wired” smoke-detector. This type wires into the 120 volt house current and only fails to function if the power is out (what’s the likelihood that both things will occur at the same time?). If you’re doing a mid-sized remodel on your home (such as a bath remodel), the city will likely force this gift-of-safety upon you. By the way, speaking of gifts, this, like the carbon-monoxide tester, makes a great gift and really does say I love you in a way that a bottle of wine just doesn’t. 

I inspected for an Oakland fireman a few years ago and we chatted quite a bit about fires, smoke-detectors and home escape. At one point I asked him a question about the removal of occupants from burning building and he sort of laughed and said ”Oh, we don’t do that much anymore. Since smoke-detectors started being used, the people are usually already outside and we just have to put out the blaze.”  

I think I’ll leave it right there.  



Got a question about home repairs and inspections? Send them to Matt Cantor at mgcantor@pacbell.net.