Have you tested your smoke alarms recently? If you haven’t, it’s possible that you, your family, and your possessions could be at risk. Smoke alarms are only useful if they actually work, and many smoke alarms could either be malfunctioning or completely dead. To avoid unnecessary risks, you need to test your smoke alarm at least once every year — and ideally once every six months. 

Do You Need to Test Your Smoke Alarm?

It’s easy to assume that your smoke alarm works because you remember the last time it went off. But what you may not realize is that the batteries may have died… or that you may have actually disabled the smoke alarm the last time it went off. In 60% of home deaths due to fire, the smoke alarms either were not present at all or did not work. Further, the risk of death is reduced by 50% if you do have a working smoke alarm.

Almost half (46%) of the smoke alarms that did not work had missing or disconnected batteries, often due to disconnected smoke alarms. 24% of the failures were caused by dead batteries, and only 7% of the failures were caused by hardwired detectors.  (source: NFPA)

Testing a smoke alarm is important because a smoke alarm can malfunction at any time. Smoke alarms are actually fairly complex, they have different types of sensors. Some sensors detect smoke, whereas others detect chemicals. Some detect just fire and some detect carbon monoxide. Just because the smoke detector goes off occasionally if you burn something while baking, it may not go off during an actual fire. It may not be able to detect “smoldering flame,” even if it can detect smoke — and smoke doesn’t always happen until it’s too late.

The Process of Testing Smoke Alarms

Testing smoke alarm is really very easy. A smoke alarm will have a button on it that says “test.” Press the button, and the smoke alarm should go off. Don’t worry, the alarm is just going to go off for a few seconds before it stops.

That means your smoke alarm is active. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s safe. Your smoke alarm will start periodically beeping if it needs to have a battery replaced, which is how you can know that it is low power. But none of this tells you whether the sensors are correct. For that, you simply need to make sure your smoke alarms are current and use new sensor technologies.

How Can You Reduce Your Risk?

What if your battery dies when you aren’t around to hear it? If you’re going on a vacation, you might not even notice. You can reduce your risk by replacing your batteries on a regular basis, such as every six months. And you can further reduce your potential risks by getting a wired smoke alarm.

Most smoke alarms should be replaced after about ten years. After ten years, you may not know whether it has the best sensor technology, or whether its sensors may have potentially malfunctioned. Many new smoke alarms have multiple types of advanced sensors, such as ionization and photoelectric. Ideally you will want a smoke alarm that has every type of sensor available.

In addition to reducing your individual risk, you should also consider the placement of your smoke alarms and the number of smoke alarms you should have. You should ideally have a smoke alarm every floor of your home, especially in halls, bedrooms, and kitchens. The more smoke alarms you have, the better protected you are.

You can also consider advantageous upgrades such as smart systems, which can alert you wherever you are and therefore mitigate your risks.