Fire Chief: Most Smoke Alarms Are Useless, Endanger Users

Fire alarms make you feel safe, but an Albany, Calif. fire chief says it’s a false sense of security. Speaking to the San Francisco Chronicle, the chief says most people equip their homes with cheaper ionization alarms, which detect smoke via an electric current and can lead to false alarms (such as reacting to overcooked food) while missing genuine dangers until it’s too late. The chief says people should opt for slightly more expensive photoelectric alarms, which use more accurate light beams to alert fire victims.

According the story, ionization alarms run about $10 while photoelectric versions cost $15.

The chief tells the Chronicle:

Ionization alarms are the ones that go off when you burn your toast, and they can be so annoying that nearly a quarter of the people who own them turn them off. But even more important, they go off a lot slower than photoelectrics, and by the time you hear them it can be too late. We absolutely have to get rid of them.

Here’s an Amazon link to some photoelectric alarms.

UPDATE: The friendly technical experts over at Consumer Reports (also published by Consumers Union, our parent company), let us know that they have information about smoke and Co2 detectors that you might like to peruse.

Their report says that the ionization alarms are indeed prone to false alarms and recommends placing them away from the kitchen and bath. Here’s the scoop:

Ionization smoke alarms

The ones we tested were all excellent at detecting the small particles typical of fast, flaming fires, but all were poor at detecting smoky, smoldering fires. Ionization units are generally prone to false alarms from burnt food and steam, so don’t mount them near a kitchen or bath.

Albany fire chief urges switching smoke alarms [San Francisco Chronicle]
(Thanks, Paul!)

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  1. Sword_Chucks says:

    This is the first I’ve heard of this… can we get a second opinion on the matter before we all go run out and make the stock of the company who makes the photoelectric detectors skyrocket?

    • KyleOrton says:

      I looked and they all make both and many models have both sensors. I have the ionization ones and I just emailed the company to see if they make a double-deally that will fit in the same bracket. Testing Kidde customer service in 3 2 1…

      • MadTownBurt says:

        Kidde does make a dual sensor model, I have several of them. And if you’ve purchased one of their smoke detectors recently (2 or so years), it should fit the same bracket. The first dual sensor I purchased from them was recalled, they initially replaced with combo smoke/CO detector, and then finally with the new model of the dual sensor smoke. All used the same mounting bracket.

    • MuffinSangria says:

      Actually, it’s been on the news before. Unfortunaltely, it hasn’t gotten the press it deserves. NIST has been recommending them for years.

      It’s usually the same company that makes both types and combo ones.

      http://household-tips.thefuntimesguide.com/2007/11/ionization_smoke_detectors.php

  2. Applekid ┬──┬ ノ( ゜-゜ノ) says:

    Pfft. Photoelectric versions don’t contain delicious delicious Americium 241.

  3. smo0 says:

    Makes sense… the item is now a part of a “boy who cried wolf” scenario….

    I think I smashed one with a hammer once when it would turn off…..
    or maybe it was beeping that the battery needed to be changed…

    I hate those things, annoying and trouble.

  4. humphrmi says:

    Here’s what would keep a smoke detector always connected in my house: if they could make one that, instead of beeping incessantly when the battery is low, just blinked an LED, that would be great. I can see it, and I’ll replace the battery as soon as possible.

    But the incessant beeping when a battery goes low does nothing but get it thrown across the room at 2:30 AM.

    Sorry, slightly-off-topic-rant over.

    • caradrake says:

      Ugh, yes please. I hate that beeping. We moved into a new apartment this last week and the alarms were beeping. We couldn’t go to the store for new batteries right away. SO annoying….

    • StutiCebriones says:

      Or just throw a clock chip and a few lines of code in there so the low-battery beep doesn’t sound between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m.

      • HoJu says:

        Two problems with that: 1) You don’t want to be the guy selling an $11 smoke detector in a sea of $10 smoke detectors.
        2) You’re just ripe for lawsuits from people who aren’t home to hear the beeping during the allotted hours and therefore don’t know to change the battery ultimately dying in a fire.

        Still, would be a nice idea.

    • aloria says:

      And make them so they can be temporarily silenced by the tap of a LARGE outside button (for when there is a false alarm.) I am short, and I end up bashing the thing off the ceiling with a broom handle because I can’t reach, even with a step ladder. Then I have to go without one until I have a chance to lug the full sized ladder out of storage and buy a replacement.

  5. legolex says:

    Will Photoelectric Alarms still go off if I burn food?

    • dreamfish says:

      One assumes it will if you burn the food enough to generate clouds of thick smoke. However, I hope you will have taken action before then.

      • denros says:

        I Don’t know, when I pan-sear + broil steak, visibility in my apartment can sometimes get pretty bad in just a few minutes. I usually have the windows open and it clears, but it gets somewhat bad for a few moments.

  6. Stickdude says:

    How are kids supposed to build nuclear reactors in their sheds if ionization alarms are banned? (http://www.dangerouslaboratories.org/radscout.html)

    Think of the radioactive children!!

  7. Emperor Norton I says:

    Going through the Amazon ones, I was surprised how cheap the photoelectric ones are now compared to several years ago.
    Of course, then the question is, are these made in China?
    Because as I’ve learned from experience, almost everything from China is garbage & do I risk my life by using their wretchedly made crap!

  8. Slave For Turtles says:

    Do the photoelectric ones need to be replaced as often as the ionization ones? Recently, we replaced all the smoke detectors in our house because they were 10 years old, and one had failed already. OUCH – one detector is not so bad, but a houseful is a chomp to the wallet.

  9. quirkyrachel says:

    Not to mention that many older people can’t hear them because the tone is too high pitched. This will only become a bigger issue as baby boomers age.

  10. cmdr.sass says:

    If you’re going to upgrade your smoke alarms, buy the interconnected versions. That way you’ll hear an alarm in a closed bedroom if the fire starts in the basement. It’ll give you more time to get out.

  11. AI says:

    My smoke alarm always goes off whenever I fry food in oil. It never goes off when I smoke cigarettes or cigars. I doubt it will alert me to a fire unless the fire happens to be caused by burning oil.

  12. calchip says:

    This is really interesting, because back in the day, maybe 1978 or so, Consumer Reports did a large report on smoke detectors which were then pretty new.

    At the time, there were about a dozen ionization detectors and two or three photoelectric ones. Half of the ionization detectors were crap. I remember there was one brand, then called Guardion (misspelled, get it?) that they said stood out from all the others, and the photoelectric ones were so crappy that they almost never went off at all.

    I remember an explanation that the photoelectric ones couldn’t possibly work as well because they relied on visible particles in the air to set them off, while the ionization ones relied on a different principle and were more sensitive.

    So now this guy is saying the opposite? It doesn’t make any sense that the ionization ones would be BOTH too slow to respond AND too sensitive to smoke from cooking, especially since smoke is a pretty reliable indicator that fire is present or likely to be happening.

    • huadpe says:

      Actually, it makes sense that the photoelectrics would have improved a ton, and ionization not at all.

      Photoelectrics rely on the technology in a digital camera, essentially. This tech has improved massively over the past few decades, so we should expect them to be much more effective.

      Ionization detectors use a chemical reaction to go off. The chem reaction was the same then as now, so they’re just as good as they were back then.

      Ionizations were half-crap then, but photoelectrics were all crap. Now the photoelectrics are excellent, so we should not settle for half-crap.

    • rbb says:

      I remember those days. My mother called the local firehouse to ask them which ones they recommended. They told her that they were not allowed to make any recommendations. So, my mother asked them which one did they use in the firehouse. They were able to answer that question ;^)

    • ShruggingGalt says:

      DING DING DING!

      (spent a few years in Fire Protection Engineering at the Univ.)

      Both kinds work for different kinds of fires. Those that smoke a lot will set off the photo ones faster, but if you have something that is burning efficiently, the ionization will detect it faster.

      So….buy the ones that use BOTH.

      Personally, I’d like to wonder where this “fire chief” got his education……

  13. Alvis says:

    If he feels so strongly, couldn’t he change Albany building codes to REQUIRE the photo detectors?

  14. peebozi says:

    Same thing most fire marshalls say to me upon a final building inspection.

    Fire extinguishers have to be at ADA compliant height and they laugh and say “yea, not only do we not want a 30 year old, in shape male to try and fight a fire with an extinguisher, we really don’t want someone in a wheelchair being brave…then we might have to rescue them from the fire instead of fight the fire”.

    Sure, most building department officials and fire marshalls have a gOD complex but at least, every once in a while, they can think rationally.

    • halfcuban says:

      It depends on the fire. In a dorm room at a college out in the middle of buck nowhere, it was the quick thinking of a friend of mine who stopped the grease fire in an apartment next door from turning into a full on blaze. And there would have been NO WAY that the fire fighters could have gotten there in time to get the blaze out. While it was doubtful that any loss of life would have occured, as the dorm was evacuated rapidly, theres no doubt that a significant number of rooms would have been destroyed before the fire had been put out by the fireman, and the structure (which was a two story dorm building with the fire on the first) might have been damaged enough to have had us all sleeping in other quarters for awhile. I credit our having to learn how to properly use a fire extinguisher at the beginning of the semester on putting that thing out.

    • Conformist138 says:

      Wow… that’s just… um… what a terrible thing to say. It’s true, they dont want ANYONE to put themselves in danger to be a hero, but to suggest a person in a wheelchair would be so incapable of putting out a small fire (just what an extinguisher is for) without needing an able-bodied rescuer is pretty rude and offensive.

      It seems the rationality you are pointing to are these guys joking about moving safety equipment out of the reach of the disabled like they were small children.

      • peebozi says:

        yes…the truth hurts sometimes.

        a person in a wheelchair, in a ll oprbability, needs on hand to maneuver the wheel chair and two hands to work the extinguisher (commercial 10lb extinguishers are typical/required in a commercial establishment).

        if the person has three good, useable arms, then i join you in your being offended.

  15. rpm773 says:

    We had a smoke alarm when I was a kid that was located at the top of the second floor stairs.

    On a windy day, when opening a first floor door that led to a closed garage, the alarm would go off immediately. This door was on the other side of the hosue from the alarm. A minute change in air pressure or something must have set it off. I don’t really know.

    Needless to say, the poor little guy didn’t keep his job for very long.

  16. JasonR says:

    I saw similar advice about a year ago and promptly upgraded the two smoke alarms in my apartment to the First Alert SA302CN (included on that Amazon list and generally highly rated).

    Unfortunately, at least in my experience, this has been a step in the wrong direction. These devices false FAR too much to be usable. They are hypersensitive to cooking smells even when things aren’t burning. Worse, you cannot place them anywhere within about a 45 degree angle of where you point a remote control. They have a feature where you can test them using any IR remote control, and they’re easily tested by accident while trying to control the TV, radio, etc. There’s nothing like waking up on a Sunday morning to the blaring alarm while the wife was trying to quietly watch TV beside be in bed. *Grrr*

    Has Consumer Reports tested some of these things? I imagine they’re equipped to compare such products, which is far easier than buying several and returning the ones that suck.

  17. hmburgers says:

    I think he’s not correct… I’ve been told by our local FD that each type (ion vs. photo) has it’s own advantages and disadvantages.

    For example, smoldering fire (cigarette in couch) vs. blazing fire (sparks that ignite a pile of papers).

    I believe this is why there are even “dual” mode alarms that use both methods to detect fire.

    Also–nearly all modern battery powered units have a “hush” feature allowing you to silence them for 10-30 minutes without removing the battery.

    Anyone who pulls the battery and doesn’t put it back in 30-60 minutes later is an idiot… anyone who doesn’t test their alarms every 6 months is a fool. It’s so easy and so cheap, and yet people completely ignore it!!

    • MrsBug says:

      We just change our batteries whenever the time changes (daylight savings time, etc). Solves the issue of having to remember. We have the First Alert ionization ones that come with a CO2 monitor and while the one we have near the kitchen ALWAYS goes off whenever I cook (LOL), I’d rather deal with that than the potential for a house fire. Scary.

    • MuffinSangria says:

      Yes, there are dual alarms. I have them.

      Also, you need to do more than press the test button on the unit. That only tells you if the electronics are working, not the sensors. There are little cans of smoke that you can use to test the sensors on the device.

      • catastrophegirl chooses not to fly says:

        i’ve hear of people using smoldering incense sticks to test their alarms. i happen to be a smoker and an absent minded cook so i always have the means to test mine, often accidentally

  18. kutsuwamushi says:

    I didn’t know about the different types of alarms!

    One of the major annoyances in my current apartment is that the smoke alarm will often go off when I’m cooking. I’m not even burning my food. Frying some tofu, it’s a nice golden brown, and suddenly–ALARM SAYS I’M GONNA DIEEEEE

    I don’t know if I can replace the smoke alarm, since it’s an apartment, but maybe I can buy a different one and simply remove the battery from the annoying one.

  19. dangermike says:

    Knowing the sorry state of affairs in California (It’s where I’ve lived my entire life), I’d be more apt to believe that the chief in question is on the take from the makers of this type of alarm. But maybe a little jaded and cynical.

    I wouldn’t trust a phototransistor, anyway.

  20. mommiest says:

    My home is much quieter since I got rid of all the smoke alarms.

  21. mommiest says:

    Somewhat OT, but some Kidde Photo/Ion smoke detectors, model P12000 have been recalled. We found out when ours kept going off for no apparent reason. At 2 a.m. And then, wouldn’t stop.

    The CR was very nice, though, and is sending us replacements in the mail.

  22. bdgbill says:

    I threw mine in the freezer after cooking set it beeping and it could not be shut off. It lives there now; only to be brought out once a year for apartment inspection day.

  23. nickmark says:

    There is much on the web over this problem with ion smokes and it is a well known problem
    that has been featured on national TV shows like 20/20
    I install and service Commercial Fire alarm systems I do not use ion only photo because I have seen Ion units not work where there have been fires.
    The best home unit is a combo Ion / Photo unit to detect both types of fires properly placed to prevent false alarms i would have at least 1 ion with the rest photo.

    The NFPA recommends a smoke detector in each bedroom in hall approaching bedroom and one on each level.
    The NFPA also recommends replacing ION units after 10 yrs as they do with time go bad while Photo units can last up to 20 years.

  24. vk2tds says:

    He is wrong. Ionization type detectors are better at detecting some fires and photoelectric detectors are better than detecting other fires. It just depends on if the fire is a slow smoldering one or a hot aggressive fire.

  25. Kevin says:

    I read this as the smoke alarm companies have paid off a respected shill to help them sell more expensive detectors now that the traditional models are down to $8 or so.

  26. H3ion says:

    The idea was to have a mixture of both, ionization for smoke and photo electric for heat. It also pays to have a carbon monoxide alarm. I’ve never heard a fire safety expert recommend only one kind rather than a mixture.

  27. NoDavidOnlyZuul says:

    Before i moved into my house we had to have the house inspected by the city because it was a rental that i fixed up. it failed its first inspection because we did not have the dual Smoke/ Carbon Monoxide Detector. It was a city code that required the dual dectors. those things went for about $40 each. Sometimes i wonder why i bother plundering at all…

  28. CrazyPiggy says:

    Here’s an idea: don’t stick your smoke detector in your kitchen. I have one in almost every room of the house, and in hallways, including just outside the kitchen door, but not in the friken kitchen. (the one outside my kitchen door has a temp. silence feature that shuts off the alarm if I hit a button, just incase I like to burn my fries).

    • wildhalcyon says:

      We have one just outside our kitchen. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have the handy silence alarm. It goes off ALL the time. We won’t even burn toast – the mere act of placing toast in the toaster and turning it on is enough to activate it. There’s no smoke, no odor, nothing.

      And because its a rental, we have no way of changing it…

  29. Marshmelly says:

    We had smoke detector right outside the bathroom that literally went off every time I got out of the shower because of the steam. Then it started to go off after someone in the OTHER room got out of the shower…barely near the alarm at all. I took the batteries out of the stupid thing and am going to get it replaced soon. Maybe I’ll get a photoelectric.

  30. ScarletAnn says:

    Here’s your second opinion. The chief is correct.
    A smoldering fire is more common scenario in a house fire so the photoelectric will give a warning much sooner in most situations.
    Buy both a photoelectric and an ionization detector or a combo alarm. The photoelectric where much more expensive in years past, now there are available for about $15.
    While you’re at it get a fire extinguisher and a CO2 alarm if you use natural gas. Check the batteries in the alarms you have and toss the ones that are older than ten years old (the ionization types have a tiny amount of a rodioactive material in them, check with your local government if they hav special disposal recommendations) These items are relatively inexpensive when you consider they are protecting you and your families life and property.

  31. lockdog says:

    I have a dual-sensor type in our central hallway. It does go off occasionally from cooking or shower steam. There is a hush button that will silence it for five minutes, although sometimes (like when running the self-cleaning oven cycle) that’s not enough. I used to take it off the bracket and just set it on the table, but sometimes I would forget about it, so I’ve whenever I take it down I throw it on my pillow. No way I’m going to bed at night without noticing it there and taking 30 seconds to pop it back on it’s bracket. But those of you with your smoke detectors off (or the poster with it in his freezer) are crazy. Sure a beeping false alarm or low battery is annoying, but dying in your sleep because your landlord is a crappy electrician is no way to go. The two house fires I’ve been close to were in perfectly normal, well maintained homes. In one board in the dryer shorted, caught on fire and since it was in a closed laundry room it burned for a long time before it was discovered. In the other an old electric socket shorted out catching the lathe on fire inside the plaster walls. It probably smoldered for hours before reaching the roof where it burned trough the soffet. Once it could get air the entire side of the house basically exploded in flames. This was during the middle of the day. If it had happened at night everyone in that house (which was subdivided into three apartments) would have been dead.

  32. shepd says:

    Landlord’s too cheap to put anything but the bare minimum in. $5 @ Home Depot FTL! Goes off every other time I have a shower, and would go off if I used the stove (which has no exhaust fan… *sigh*). I gave up a long time ago and I just let it beep, maybe the neighbours will leave and tell the landlord why he needs to spend another $5 next time?

  33. john says:

    How about smoke alarms that go off in the middle of the night because an ant crawled across the sensor? Nothing p*sses me off more than a false alarm at 3 am, and since they are interconnected, every alarm goes off at once. They need to work on a whole new technology to make better smoke detectors.

  34. MedicallyNeedy says:

    Isn’t it always the case that when a house burns to the ground, it gets reported, “the smoke alarms were not working”. Of course they didn’t work. They burned! …and insurers don’t have to pay.

  35. PBallRaven says:

    My grandmother once called me to come her house and catch a cricket that was loose inside and chirping. You can guess what it was…

  36. ja says:

    Consumer Reports has recommended having both ionization and photoelectric smoke detectors since each excels at detecting different types of fires. But if you can’t have both, have the ionization type because Consumer Reports found the following (8/2001 issue):

    “All of the ionization alarms reacted to our smokeless, 3-foot-high flames within 30 seconds. None of the photoelectric alarms responsed even after 3 minutes of flames. But the photoelectrics reacted to our smokey-fire tests within about 5 minutes, while visibility was still unimpeded. The ionization models took as long as 21 minutes to respond; by then, the smoke had cut visibility significantly.”

  37. Brainphart says:

    Get a First Alert Double Sensor smoke alarm. Good for fast burning fires and slow, smoldering fires.

  38. FLConsumer says:

    I have to agree with the fire chief on this one for one major reason: Photoelectric detectors are what the vast majority of commercial buildings have in them. Commercial building codes are far stricter than residential, especially when it comes to fire detection/suppression and life-safety.

    The same is true for false alarms. Larger office buildings/hospitals may have over 50 smoke detectors per floor. Imagine the disruption that would occur if ionization detectors were used.

    Ionization detectors were a breakthrough when they first came out — the first smoke detectors affordable enough to be put in the hands of consumers for their homes. Affordable isn’t the same as good.

    As for my house, I have commercial smoke detectors. These run about $35-50 depending on the model. You better believe there’s a reason they cost that compared to the $7 the crap you find at Home Cheapo sells for.