A smoke alarm can give you those precious few minutes of warning which could help you and your family to get out safely. Many deaths and injuries could be prevented if people had early warning and were able to get out in time. Buying and fitting a smoke alarm could help save your own and your family’s life. This section describes what smoke alarms are and then goes on to explain how many you should fit, where you should fit them and how to look after them. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions on how to fit and position the alarm. If you have difficulties, or want more information, you should get in touch with your local Fire and Rescue Service (FRS). The local FRS may be able to make arrangements to have the alarm fitted for you if you are unable to do it for yourself. The instructions will also give you guidance on battery replacement and maintenance.
What is a smoke alarm?
Smoke alarms, or smoke detectors as they are sometimes known, are small devices about the size of a hand. They are fitted to the ceiling and are able to detect fires in their earliest stages and sound a loud warning alarm. This alarm can give you those precious few minutes of warning time which will help get you and your family out safely. Smoke alarms are cheap and easy to install.
How should you choose a smoke alarm?
There are many types of alarm on the market. They cost from around £5.00 upwards and can be operated by battery (Dry Cell) or mains power, in the latter case with or without a backup battery. We recommend, however, that you always chose mains powered smoke alarms with backup batteries. Where you require more than one detector they can be linked together using either hard wiring or a radio-interlinked network.
Always look for an alarm which carries the British Standard kitemark, as this means that the alarm has achieved a standard acceptable to the British Standards Institution (BSI). Also make sure that the alarms still have the full ten year product life that is the standard for smoke alarms and has not been kept in a warehouse for too long. Some Amazon and eBay sellers sell old stock that other retailers sold off at bargain prices.
Smoke alarms use various methods of detection and it is important to select the most appropriate.
The most popular smoke alarm models are:
1) Ionisation smoke alarms: The oldest type of smoke alarm and still the standard in the UK. The ionisation smoke alarm contains a small amount of radio-activity to operate. Ionisation alarms are best suited for landings and offices and other areas with fast flaming fires (wood, paper).
2) Optical smoke alarms (also called photoelectric): These detect fire with a small light beam within a chamber. There is no radio-activity in optical alarms and optical alarms are best suited for rooms with soft furnishings such as bedrooms, lounges and also halls. Optical smoke alarms are less likely to give false alarms from burnt toast.
3) Heat alarms: These alarms detect excessive temperatures in a kitchen or garage. Some heat detectors also detect an unusual speed of temperature rise. These alarms are the answer to false alarms in your kitchen or garage. They are not suitable for the hall or the rest of the house!
4) Combination smoke and CO (carbon monoxide) alarms: These alarms detect both smoke and carbon monoxide and save space as well as costs. They give different alarm signals to differentiate the two causes of an alarm.
Detailed information about the different smoke alarm sensor types can be found on the Safelincs site
The Code of practice for the design, installation and maintenance of fire detection and fire alarm systems in dwellings is BS 5839-6:2019 (which has recently replaced BS 5839-6:2013) and a copy should be available at your local reference library.
Fitting your smoke alarm
If you live in a flat or bungalow, one smoke alarm is the minimum cover required to provide you with an early warning in case of a fire. If your home has more than one storey, fit smoke alarms on every level of your home. For extra protection you can fit alarms in all room where you think a fire may start, for example the lounge or bedroom. Do not fit a smoke alarm in the bathroom, as the steam may trigger the alarm. Cigarette smoke will not normally set off an alarm. In some cases you may be able to link more than one alarm together so if one senses smoke they will all sound an alarm. There are radio-interlinked smoke alarms available to make this installation easier.
Where should you fit your smoke alarm?
Smoke alarms are simply screwed onto the ceiling (or stuck to it with double sided pads) and should be fitted as close to the centre of the entrance hall or room as possible, but at least 30 centimetres (12 inches) away from any wall or light fitting. In escape routes there should be a detector within 1.5 metres of the entrance to all habitable rooms and any cupboards that pose a fire risk. In some situations this may require additional smoke alarms. You should always make sure that your alarm is fitted in a place where it can be heard throughout your home – particularly when you are asleep. If your home is on one level, you should fit the alarm in the hallway between the living and sleeping areas. If your home has more than one storey, the best place to fit it is in the hallway close to the bottom of the staircase, and a second alarm on the upstairs landing.
Looking after your smoke alarm
Smoke alarms need very little maintenance. A few minutes of your time each year will ensure that your alarm is working and could help save the lives of you and your family. Regular routine testing and maintenance is very important. All smoke alarm systems should be tested at least monthly using the integral test button. Systems should also be checked if the occupier has been away or the power has failed. Smoke alarms should be cleaned periodically in accordance with manufacturer recommendations. Where experience shows that excessive levels of dust are compromising the effectiveness of the system, more frequent cleaning and servicing may be required.
Change the battery in the alarm when you hear the low level battery warning signal which could be one to ten years. Make a note of the date of the change. Vacuum the inside of the alarm to ensure that dust isn’t blocking the sensor chamber; the frequency will depend on how dusty the location is. The life of a detector is about ten years. After ten years the smoke alarm needs to be replaced.
There is a free reminder service where you can request regular SMS messages or emails to remind you to change your smoke alarm battery or carry out your tests.
Smoke alarms for people with hearing impairment
Many people whose hearing is not severely impaired are still able to hear a conventional smoke alarm. It is a good idea to link two or more alarms. This way smoke detected in the living room will set off another alarm in the bedroom. An electrician will be able to advise you about linking the alarms or you can install radio-interlinked units. For people who would not be able to hear a conventional smoke alarm there are special devices available which make use of a vibrating pad or flashing light instead of the auditory signal – the vibrating pad alarms are particularly useful for deaf-blind people.
Further information is available from the Royal National Institute for Deaf People. You may also find it useful to contact local voluntary organisations or the Social Services Department who may be able to offer advice and assistance on products specially designed to help people with disabilities.
For further information, help and advice go to your local council or fire brigade who will be happy to advise you on fire prevention and safety.
If looking for a good electrician, for example, ask friends and neighbours to introduce you to trustworthy people they know about. Elderly people should try to have someone they know with them when they have asked someone they don’t know to call at their home. Your local Age UK office (previously known as Age Concern) or Citizens Advice Bureau can give advice on what local voluntary groups there may be which can help you, and what benefits may be due to you – their addresses and telephone numbers can be obtained from your local telephone directory or public library.
- Never disconnect or take the batteries out of your alarm if it goes off by mistake.
- Standard battery operated alarms are the cheapest option, but the batteries need to be replaced regularly.
- A lot of people forget to check the batteries, so longer life batteries are better.
- An alarm with ten-year sealed-in batteries is the best option.
- Mains-powered alarms are powered by your home power supply. Only choose mains-powered smoke alarms with an internal backup battery. Some of these need replacing every year or so, others have re-chargeable lithium backup batteries that will last the full ten years of the smoke alarm’s life.
- Alarms that plug into a light socket use a rechargeable battery, which is charged when the light is on. These alarms overheat easily due to the light’s heat which damages the battery. Also, some models cannot be silenced at the end of their ten year life which can cause problems.
- You can have linked alarms installed, so that when one alarm detects a fire they all go off together. This is useful if you live in a large house or over several levels.
- Don’t put ionisation smoke alarms in or near kitchens or bathrooms where smoke or steam can set them off by accident. For the kitchen use a heat alarm and in the hallway use an optical smoke alarm. Bathrooms sadly cannot be covered with smoke alarms at all.
- If it is difficult for you to fit your alarm yourself contact your local Fire and Rescue Service for help.
- Make checking your smoke alarm part of your regular household routine. Test it by pressing the button until the alarm sounds. If it doesn’t sound, you need to replace the battery or maybe a fault has developed.
- If your smoke alarm starts to beep on a regular basis, you need to replace the battery immediately.
- If it is a ten year alarm, you will need to replace the whole alarm every ten years.
April 1, 2011[Last updated: August 2, 2019]