by Steven Burnett /
One of my tasks as a home inspector is to make sure that the home has smoke detectors, and that they work. You would be surprised at how many of these things are just being used as ceiling decorations.
Now, if you live in a home that was built after about 1990, your home will probably have a smoke detector on each floor. That includes the basement. These detectors are supposed be “hard wired” and inter-connected. If one goes off, they all go off. If you live in an older home, you may be lucky to have one detector in the whole house.
Current codes (new construction) require that each bedroom has a detector, and one on each floor of the home, including the basement. These detectors will have battery back-up for when the power goes out. The battery should be changed approximately every 6 months. That is what the beeping is. The battery is dead or low on power. I do not inspect a home to current code, but my recommendation in this area is to always bring your home up to code.
Checking an alarm is easy. First, push the button on the unit to see if the buzzer works. Next, light a candle and then blow it out next to the alarm. If you still have a smoker in the house, a lit cigarette right next to the alarm will set it off also. If the unit is working, it will go off in a matter of seconds. You could have dad or the kids cook supper some evening—that is a good way to set off the alarms, too.
Smoke alarms only have a working life of about ten years, so it is important to check older units on a regular basis. When purchasing a replacement smoke alarm, I do not recommend the combination Carbon Monoxide/Smoke Detectors. Smoke alarms are to be located on a ceiling, and a CO detector should never be located more than 12” from the floor.
Recent studies show that kids will actually sleep through that screeching sound that a smoke alarm puts out. Here is a news report illustrating:
First Alert, Kidde, & Rediexit all advertise talking alarms, but they are a generic voice with a generic message: “FIRE, PLEASE EXIT THE BUILDING.” Kidsmart is supposed to make a recordable talking alarm, where Mom or Dad can record their voice saying a child’s name and telling them to wake up. The same study previously mentioned shows that kids will wake almost immediately to their parent’s voices. I tried to research where these recordable talking alarms are available, but I could not find a reliable source. If anyone is able to find such a source, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the meantime, check your alarms on a regular basis, and have an escape plan if the unthinkable happens.
Steven Burnett is a certified Professional Home Inspector with Journey Property Inspections, LLC, covering all of Southeastern Michigan. He also does radon testing, water quality testing, and lead paint testing. Steven has raised six daughters, helped care for 8 foster babies, and now has 3 grandchildren.