May 12, 2014 -- The other night loud beeping awakened me from a deep sleep and I leapt out of bed sure the house was on fire and the smoke detectors were going off. I was wrong. The beeping I heard was a truck backing up in the street outside. Doh!
Paranoia is an occupational hazard of 15 years as a consumer reporter. But I like to think it’s constructive paranoia. My house is equipped with 14 different smoke detectors. I actually change the batteries when I change my clocks. And I once refused to leave a house where we were shooting a story until I personally replaced the chirping battery in the family’s smoke detector.
So when I heard the news that the Institution of Fire Engineers estimates American homes need another 100 million smoke alarms to be fully protected, I was, well, alarmed. The group extrapolated its estimate based on actual visits to U.S. homes, where its members found smoke detectors either missing or not working.
“Having enough working alarms, and knowing what to do when they go off, can mean the difference between life and death in a home fire,” said “Jim Crawford of the IFE. So here’s a quiz to see if you have enough alarms and know what to do when they go off.
1. Question: How many smoke alarms does the average American home with 2 stories and 3 bedrooms need?
A: 1 alarm
B: 2 alarms
C: 5 alarms
D: 14 alarms
Answer: The National Fire Protection Association recommends homes should have smoke alarms installed inside every bedroom, outside each sleeping area and on every level of the home, including the basement. So that means a 2 story, 3 bedroom house needs a minimum of five smoke alarms. The correct answer is “C” even though my 2-story, 3 bedroom house has 14!
2. Question: We all know we’re supposed to replace our smoke alarm batteries at least once a year. But how often are you supposed to replace the smoke alarms themselves?
A: Every 2-4 years
B: Every 5-7 years
C: Every 8-10 years
D: Every 15-20 years
Answer: I’m willing to bet that most people either haven’t thought about this at all or think “D” is the right answer and act accordingly. Frankly, I hadn’t thought about it either until I did a story at the Good Housekeeping Institute about how often common household items need to be replaced. According to the US Fire Administration, most smoke alarms installed in homes today have a life span of about 8-10 years, so C is correct. It’s a good idea to write the date of purchase on the inside of the alarm with a marker. Some will now beep at you when their time is up, which may seem like a ploy to get people to spend more money, but, actually, the sensitive instruments in detectors just wear out over time, so it really is important.
3: Question: There are two types of smoke detectors: ionization alarms and photoelectric alarms. Which type should you install in your house?
C: All of the above
Answer: The answer is C, all of the above. Ionization alarms sound more quickly when a flaming, fast moving fire occurs. Photoelectric alarms are quicker at sensing smoldering, smoky fires. Because you have no way of knowing which type of fire you might have, the USFA recommends the installation of both ionization and photoelectric alarms. Or you can now purchase alarms that have both types of sensors.
4. Question: How many minutes do you have to escape a house fire alive?
Answer: The real answer is:”Not as much time as you think.” Modern furnishings are made mostly with artificial fibers that burn hot and fast. compared to the natural fibers of the past. According to testing done by Underwriters Laboratories, 30 years ago you probably had about 20 minutes to get out of your house alive. Today you have just 3 to 4 minutes.
There is a product that can help you make better use of this precious window: interconnected or linked smoke detectors. These detectors are connected to each other wirelessly. Here’s why that’s so helpful: Say there’s a fire in your basement. Normally, the detector in your bedroom won’t go off until the smoke reaches it. With linked detectors, if there’s a fire in your basement, the detector in your bedroom will go off immediately, triggered by the one in the basement, giving you more time to escape your home alive.
5. Question: What’s the average price range of a smoke detector?
Answer: Of course, the answer is A, $6-$20, according to the US Fire Administration. Certainly you can spend more for fancier devices, but it’s not necessary. In fact, you can almost certainly get smoke detectors for free. Most local fire departments offer free detectors —and will even install them for you— either year-round or during fire prevention week in October.
If what’s holding you back is looks, not price, (Hey, I know you people are out there), there’s even an answer for that these days. Some companies have begun producing smaller, more stylish smoke alarms that match your decor, in finishes like wood grain and stainless steel.
Opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author.
Elisabeth Leamy is a 20-year consumer advocate for programs including "Good Morning America" and "The Dr. Oz Show." She is the author of Save BIG and The Savvy Consumer. Elisabeth is also a professional speaker, delivering talks nationwide on saving money, media relations, and career success. Elisabeth receives her best story tips from readers, so please connect with her via Facebook, Twitter or her website, to share your ideas.