Smoke alarms: choosing the right one

Home safety

20 March 2018

Fire is one of the most costly forms of property damage in the UK. So a fully-functioning smoke alarm should be at the top of most homeowner's safety checklist.

In the third quarter of 2013 alone, over £270 million of damage was caused by fire. And the damage that fire can cause isn't just restricted to your property: the risk of smoke inhalation, which is often less apparent but just as dangerous, has the capability of causing serious harm to your family.

Despite the risks, though, 12% of dwellings in England reported not having a working smoke alarm. Worse still, more than 33% of fires in Great Britain occurred in properties where no alarm was installed.

In this practical guide we look at the most common causes of household fires, the types of smoke alarm available, and where best to deploy each type for maximum effectiveness.

The common causes of fire

Before looking at which kind of smoke alarm is best for your home, it's worth considering the common causes of household fires, and how to prevent them.

Cooking appliances, including some electrical appliances and wiring, were the cause of ignition in over half of the home fires in the UK during 2012 and 2013. This means that having a smoke alarm in your kitchen is a vital part of protecting your home. It's also important to regularly monitor and maintain your smaller appliances, such as toasters and kettles, which can suffer from electrical faults and subsequent fires if left unchecked. 

Although smoking materials (including e-cigarettes and matches) were the cause of ignition in just 6% of domestic fires, they were the cause of death in over a third of fatalities in accidental house fires. These types of fire commonly start in the lounge or bedroom, and often result in death by smoke inhalation rather than burns, so it’s important to have early warning even of slow, smouldering fires.

For maximum protection, try to fit an alarm in every room except the bathroom (as steam could accidentally trigger the alarm), but as a minimum houses should have at least one alarm per floor. Fit your alarms as close to the centre of the room as possible, but ensure they’re at least 30 centimetres from walls or light fittings. 

Selecting the right smoke alarm for you

In addition to effective coverage, it's important to select the right alarm type for each area. There are several types of smoke alarm, each of which is better at detecting certain fires.

The cheapest kind of smoke alarms are ionisation models, which produce a small current that is affected by smoke, triggering the alarm. These are sensitive to the tiny particles of smoke commonly produced by fast-flaming fires, which begin when flammable material like paper or wood quickly catches. Unfortunately, they're also easily set off by burnt toast, so aren't ideal for the kitchen. Your best bet is to place these in your loft, dining room or lounge for protection against accidental fires caused by items like candles, Christmas lights, Christmas trees or matches.

Optical or photoelectric smoke alarms are slightly more expensive and, as the name suggests, produce a beam of light that triggers the alarm when affected by smoke. These are more effective at detecting larger smoke particles produced by smouldering fires, making them better protection against fires caused by PVC wiring, chargers or cigarettes. However, they are marginally less sensitive to smoke from free-burning fires. Optical or photoelectric smoke alarms are best placed next to kitchens, in hallways and landings, and in bedrooms. Having fire alarms in a bedroom is particularly important for children and the elderly who are less likely to wake up when alarms sound.

While not strictly smoke alarms, heat sensors are useful as they detect a rapid rise in temperature. This means they're an excellent option for the kitchen, where fat fires can rapidly burn, and as they don’t detect smoke, they are not susceptible to false alarms. Heat alarms are also useful for smokers who don't want to set off alarms in the lounge, for rooms with open fires, or for a room that has a barbecue on a nearby patio.

You can get the best of all possible worlds, though, as combined ionisation and optical (and sometimes heat) alarms are available. They’re a particularly wise investment for those living in a smaller home with fewer rooms, or smokers keen to cover every risk in the main areas of their home.

Additional features and maintenance

In addition to the basic function of a smoke alarm, it pays to consider certain extra functions and installation methods. Mains powered alarms are a great way of ensuring your alarm doesn't need regular battery changes, although they must be installed by a qualified electrician. It's also worth considering a back-up battery in case of power cuts. A ‘hush button’ is an excellent addition if you opt for an ionisation alarm close to the kitchen, while a light, visual aid or vibrating bracelet can help the deaf and hard of hearing. Carbon monoxide alarms are sometimes included with smoke alarms, and these can detect harmful leaks from heating systems and other gas appliances.

There are a number of steps you should take to ensure that your smoke alarms continue to provide adequate early warning in the event of fire. If your alarms are battery powered, remember to test them regularly to ensure they're still functioning. In 2012 to 2013, a smoke alarm was present but did not function in 19% of fires, showing how incredibly important it is to test your alarms regularly. It’s also a good idea to have old electrical appliances and wiring checked regularly to ensure that it’s still in line with the required safety standards.

Another important way to stay safe is to get into the habit of storing electrical appliances, including chargers, e-cigarettes and batteries, away from potential sources of heat such as a radiator. Remember to store cigarettes, matches, candles and other flammable materials safely and away from children.

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