COOL TIP: What You Need to Know About Smoke and Carbon Monoxide Detectors

Not a flying saucer……

Carbon monoxide and smoke detectors are found in just about every American home, yet most people have no idea how to use them correctly!  Because they are rarely located or maintained properly,  homeowners suffer the plight of false alarms.  Even the new generation of smart detectors are not immune from the beeping and chirping that plagues most homes.   Even though the smoke alarm is based upon century-old technology and they are far from perfect.  New smart smoke alarms represent a quantum improvement, but they aren’t perfect either.   Even though the detectors are smarter and more capable, unfortunately their owners aren’t appreciably smarter.  So false alarms are still possible, even with smart smoke detectors.

As important as smoke detectors can be, there’s an even more important detector which tracks levels of carbon monoxide (CO). This is a silent and very deadly gas that is found in just about every American home.   Any time you burn a fuel (natural gas, gasoline, propone or even charcoal), you are releasing CO into your home’s environment.   The failure of a carbon monoxide detector could result in your entire family dying…..often while they sleep.   It happens to approximately 400 Americans every year.  (Another 20,000 are reported to require emergency room care)

Most CO detectors will use at least one of three detection technologies:  biomimetic sensor, metal oxide semiconductor, or electrochemical sensor. And generally, they are combined with smart smoke detectors.  These new smart CO alarms represent a quantum improvement, as they do their own diagnostics and coordinate with other home automation apps.   They’ll also send alarms to your smart phone or another designated smart device, so if you are not in the house you can still be alerted to a problem.  However, while an improvement they aren’t perfect.    Even though the detectors are smarter and more capable, unfortunately their owners aren’t appreciably smarter.  So false alarms are still possible, even with smart CO detectors.  Here’s how to troubleshoot why your smart CO detector is beeping or chirping and what you can do to prevent that.  Here’s how to troubleshoot why your smart smoke detector is beeping or chirping and what you can do to prevent that.

What Causes False Alarms

False alarms for smoke detectors is  usually attributable to six factors:

  • Low batteries
  • Dust
  • Steam or humidity
  • Cooking smoke
  • Inadequate maintenance
  • Improper placement of the detector

False alarms for CO detectors are largely caused by:

  • Low batteries
  • Emissions from a gas appliance
  • Emissions from a outdoor campfire or nearby neighbor
  • Cleaning solvents
  • Inadequate maintenance
  • Improper placement of the detector

Here’s how to reduce the chance that your detector will beep or chirp when it has no business doing either.

The Curse of The Backup Battery

As with the dumb detectors, smart smoke detectors are either fully powered by batteries or use batteries as a backup in case power fails (a common result from a fire).  Presumably, you’ve installed a hard-wired smart detector with a backup 9-volt battery.  Backup batteries in smoke detectors generally have a 5 year life, if alkaline.  Lithium-ion 9v batteries could last up to 10 years, but require periodic testing.  That means that even if you’ve installed a smart detector within the last five years, you’ll likely need to start considering battery replacement in the coming

Fortunately, most new smart detectors will notify you about battery strength, either by wi-fi or bluetooth connected devices.    So while batteries still need to be changed, you are likely to learn about it a false beeping is triggered.

HOT TIP:  Recently, smart batteries have come onto the market.   These are 9-volt smart batteries enabled with wifi or Bluetooth connectivity.   This battery can be placed in a dumb detector and communicate battery strength directly with a smart device.   Their life is rated at 5 years, but it is far more economical than installing a smart detector that runs 2-3 times more expensive.

Dust, Steam and Cooking Do Not Play Nicely with Detectors

Dust is a common culprit in setting off false alarms, especially for photoelectric detectors.  Cooking smoke and steam can also trigger ionization alarms to falsely trigger.   These false alarms are largely the result of poor device placement.  In order to properly locate your smoke detector you need to consider the many possible inadvertent things that can trigger a false alarm:

  • Smoke from burnt food or cooking, especially popcorn or toasters.
  • Fireplace smoke or outdoor campfires blowing indoors
  • Steam from cooking food
  • Shower steam
  • Water leaks
  • Excessive dust
  • Debris on sensors
  • Bugs (yup, that’s why they call them bugs)

So you can’t locate a detector in an area that produces a large amount of steam or smoke. Steam from showers or stovetops and smoke from cooked food can easily set your smoke alarm off unexpectedly. Even smoke from an outdoor barbeque can be a culprit.

Thus, any smoke detector located near a stovetop, outside a bathroom or near patio windows is positioned to trigger a false alarm.   Better to move detectors to bedrooms, hallways, stairways (smoke rises) and near fire hazards such as fireplaces.

There are a few places where you definitely do not want to place a smart detector:

Unfinished attics. The extreme temperatures in an attic can cause a malfunction or false alarms.

Bathrooms. Steam from showers or bathing can set off false alarms.

Near fans and vents. Fans and vents cause air circulation, and may trigger false alarms with fumes from other rooms.  Even worse, they may blow smoke away from the alarm, and interfere with fire-caused smoke detection.

Garages. Automobile emissions and household maintenance equipment stored in garages will cause false smoke alarms.

Emissions from garages and from the outdoors steam can also cause CO alarms to falsely trigger.   These false alarms are largely the result of poor device placement.  In order to properly locate your CO detector you need to consider the many possible inadvertent things that can trigger a false alarm:

  • CO from burnt food or cooking, especially popcorn or toasters.
  • Fireplace CO or outdoor campfires blowing indoors
  • Improperly vented or misfunctioning gas appliances
  • Partially blocked or dirty chimneys/fireplaces.
  • Emissions from a close neighbor

Any CO detector located near a stovetop, garage or near patio windows is positioned to trigger a false alarm.   Better to move detectors to bedrooms, hallways, stairways (CO rises) and near gas-emitting hazards such as fireplaces.  There are a few places where you definitely do not want to place a smart CO detector:

Your Garage.  If you don’t spend a lot of time in a closed garage, then there’s no need to place a detector there.  In all likelihood, you’ll trigger more false alarms in a garage than any other place in your home.  Automobile emissions and household maintenance equipment stored in garages will regularly trigger false CO alarms. Better to install a carbon monoxide detector in a hallway leading to a garage.

Near Windows.   Outdoor air might dilute the carbon monoxide, thus not triggering an alarm. Finally, be aware that oft-times, emissions coming from a close neighbor could trigger a false CO alarm.

Near fans and vents. Fans and vents cause air circulation, and may trigger false alarms with fumes from other rooms.  Even worse, they may blow CO away from the alarm, and interfere with fire-caused CO detection.

Near household solvents or batteries.  Many household products, including solvents, will mimic the CO chemical profile and can cause false alarms in CO detectors. Fans placed in a garage or patio where you do automobile maintenance is a must, especially if you are using a petroleum-based solvent.   Similarly, if a CO alarm is located near back-up power systems containing batteries, you can expect false alarms.  As batteries charge, they emit hydrogen gas, which would trigger a CO alarm.

How Maintenance Will Reduce False Alarms

In addition to monitoring battery strength, weekly testing and monthly cleaning of a smart detector is generally recommended by manufacturers.  You need to remove any dust that accumulates in your detector because it can reflect the light particles and cause a false fire alarm. To clean, remove the outer casing and use a vacuum attachment or electronic aerosol cleaner to remove smaller particles. Use care and be gentle with the sensors, as they are fragile.

Further, most manufacturers recommend that all of your fuel burning appliances should be regularly serviced by a credentialed inspector.  This expert will measure CO levels coming from your appliances.

End of life

As a general rule, smoke detectors are designed to last 10 yearsConsumer Reports recommends that any detector be replaced each decade, as the sensors begin to lose their sensitivity.

CO detectors are even shorter-lived. As a general rule, CO detectors are designed to last 5 years.  The Center for Disease Control and Consumer Reports recommends that any detector be replaced each every five years, as the sensors begin to lose their sensitivity.

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