As home inspectors we check for sound construction and the overall safety of a home. Smoke alarms may seem like a small item on the checklist, but they save lives. When they malfunction or fail lives are at risk.
Every year around 2000 people lose their lives to residential fires. Our responsibility is to keep our clients safe. Educating clients is part of our role.
Smoke alarms can seem like an afterthought to clients. Often they are focused on the big picture and feel pressure to buy or sell. Smoke alarms are the last thing on their mind. But when we discover a default or malfunction, we are saving lives.
The shrill alarm can mean precious seconds for a family to get outside to escape smoke and flames. Flames are dramatic and can travel fast. Smoke inhalation can cause permanent damage to lungs. Continued exposure can cause death.
Two Types of Smoke Alarms
Smoke alarms are configured two main ways. When you understand the differences you can help your client understand the need for additional alarms in the house and the best placement for each type of smoke alarm.
The different categories depend on the type of smoke detection sensor in the alarm. Each type of smoke alarm performs differently in different types of fires. Depending on the alarm type, it may use multiple sensors. Sometimes these sensors detect heat as well as smoke, and also carbon monoxide for a fire warning.
These smoke alarms have a chamber containing two plates that generate a small, continuous electric current. When smoke particles enter the chamber they disrupt the current flow. When the current stops the alarm triggers.
A light beams on a receptor (photocell) in these alarms. This type of smoke detector works one of two ways. When smoke enters the chamber, either the light is reduced or increased depending on the configuration. Either way, the photocell responds to the increase of decrease of light and triggers the alarm.
Both types of smoke detectors can pass the voluntary standard for smoke alarms but they perform differently. Ionization detectors respond quickly to flaming fires that give off heat and hot gases that give off smaller combustion particles. Photoelectric detectors respond more quickly to smoldering fires that emit larger combustion particles.
Dual sensor smoke detectors combine ionization and photoelectric sensors in one unit. These detectors alert residents quickly to either fast flame or slow smoldering fires.
Smoke detectors can be battery powered or connected to the home’s wiring system. Connected smoke alarm systems may have a battery backup to sustain function in the event of a power outage.
Sealed long-life batteries power some smoke detectors. The batteries lose power over time so the entire unit needs to be replaced in 10 years. Detectors powered by replaceable batteries, usually 9-volt, need regular replacement.
Educating Your Client
Because clients often take smoke detectors for granted, they are surprised when we point out correct placement, malfunction, or the need to replace aging alarms. Because we are dedicated to client service, education becomes a crucial role when our findings uncover the need for remediation or replacement.
Remind your clients of basic smoke detector maintenance. Detecting and alerting residents to fire makes smoke detectors critical to home safety. Demonstrate your knowledge through recommendations in your inspection report.
- When a home lacks a smoke detector, advise immediate installation to protect everyone in the home.
- Advise clients to test smoke alarms once a month for proper working order.
- Suggest replacing batteries, twice a year. An easy reminder is to change batteries when they change clocks for daylight savings time.
- Advise clients to install both types of detectors, ionization and photoelectric, on every level of the home.
- Cooking can cause nuisance alarms with ionization detectors. Advise using photoelectric detectors near the kitchen to avoid false alerts. But, advise using ionization detectors in the home, because kitchen fires are often fast flame fires.
- Advise clients on the safety of multiple detectors in the home, especially for dwellings with multiple floors.
- Sleeping areas need smoke detectors nearby, as well as one in each bedroom, to give residents timely notification in order to leave quickly.
- Your comprehensive inspection includes heating, cooling, and water heating systems which can be sources of home fires. And, your inspection of the electrical system, including faulty wiring, also heads off potential fire sources. When you detect any faults, advise clients of potential fire risk.
- Add value to your advice by suggesting creating evacuation procedures and quarterly practice evacuation drills.
Your Knowledge Adds Value to Each Inspection
The recommendations in your report add value in your client’s eyes to your experience and knowledge in performing a thorough inspection. Smoke detectors are a small but vital element of every home.
Published in the American Society of Home Inspectors ASHI Reporter, October 2020 issue.