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Smoke, Heat, and Carbon Monoxide Detectors


The leading cause of deaths and injuries to children at home is accidents. Fires are very dangerous. Most fatal home fires occur at night, while people sleep. If you are asleep or get disoriented from gases caused by a fire, you may not even realize that there is a fire. A smoke detector can sound an alarm and alert you to the danger in time to escape.

Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless gas. It is made by many household appliances (furnaces, dryers, ranges, ovens, charcoal grills, camp stoves, and heaters). Many deaths are caused by trying to heat the house during a power outage. Never use a gas range or oven to heat a house. Never use a charcoal grill inside. Oil, kerosene, coal, and wood produce carbon monoxide when burned in the house or garage. Have gas furnaces, water heaters, clothes dryers, fireplaces and flues inspected every year by a qualified service technician.

Never leave the car engine running inside the garage even with the door open. Have gas appliances and furnaces checked regularly and repair any defects. Have gas appliances installed by a professional and make sure they vent to the outside. If something goes wrong and carbon monoxide leaks into your home, it could be deadly. The alarm of a carbon monoxide detector will go off in time to get out before a normal adult starts feeling sick.

The following are some common questions and answers about smoke, heat, and carbon monoxide detectors.

What are the types of alarms or detectors?

Smoke detectors will sound an alarm at the first trace of smoke and heat. Carbon monoxide detectors will sound an alarm if the carbon monoxide level in the home is too high. Combination carbon monoxide and smoke detectors will sound if either level is too high. Combination carbon monoxide and gas detectors will sound if either the carbon monoxide or the gas level is too high in your home.

What is the power source for these detectors?

Some detectors run on batteries. (Most require a 9 volt battery. Use the battery recommended by the manufacturer.) Other detectors are wired directly into the electrical system of the house. If the detector is powered by your home's electrical system, it is important to have a battery backup.

What are the pros and cons of the battery powered alarms?

An advantage of a battery alarm is they are not affected by a fire that cuts off the electricity to the house and they can be placed anywhere. A disadvantage is the batteries need to be checked monthly and changed every 6 months. The beep that signals a low battery can be annoying.

What are the pros and cons of the electric detectors?

You do not have to change batteries and there is no annoying beep when the battery is low. However, fires or power outages that affect electricity mean the alarm will not work. Also, detectors must be placed where wiring is available.

Do I have to do anything to maintain my detectors?

Yes. You should test them once a month by holding a candle 6 inches away and blowing smoke toward the detector. The alarm should sound in 20 seconds. Children can help test and get familiar with the sound the alarm makes. Some alarms have test buttons, but to be sure the detector works, use the smoke-testing method. To test your carbon monoxide detector, just use the test button. For all types of detectors, replace batteries every 6 months or when they are low. Clean the unit at least once a year by vacuuming the detector. Never paint the detectors.

With so many brands of detectors on the market, how do I choose one?

Be sure to buy a detector that has the label of a testing laboratory, for example, Underwriter's Laboratory (UL). Look for battery backup feature in electric detectors and low battery reminders in battery-powered models. Check with your local fire department to make sure the alarm meets fire codes. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions about how to install and maintain the detector.

How many smoke, heat, and carbon monoxide detectors should I buy for my house?

Install a smoke detector and a carbon monoxide detector on each floor in the house and in every bedroom. Your local building and safety codes may require you to have additional alarms. For extra protection, you can also put them in the dining room, furnace room, utility room, attic, garage, and hallways.

Where should the detectors be placed?

Since smoke rises, mount the detector high on the wall close to the ceiling, or on the ceiling itself. Do not put a smoke and heat detector in the path of air conditioning or heater vents, or too close to windows and doors. Smoke and steam from cooking, fireplaces, and candles may cause false alarms.

How much will it cost to install smoke and carbon monoxide detectors?

Smoke detectors can be purchased for less than $20. Carbon monoxide detectors range from $25 to $60. Combination detectors range from $40 to $100. Buy the detector that best meets your need.

Carbon monoxide and smoke detectors give your family extra time to escape unharmed from a fire or carbon monoxide poisoning. The time and money spent on researching, purchasing, installing, and maintaining your detectors could save lives.


Written by E. Christophersen, PhD, author of "Pediatric Compliance: A Guide for the Primary Care Physician.".
Published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2010-02-03
Last reviewed: 2009-12-01

This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a health care professional.

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