Tips on buying and maintaining smoke alarms and CO detectors for your home

Properly installed and maintained smoke alarms and carbon monoxide (CO) detectors can help save lives by providing a critical early warning for anyone in the home. Along with home fire sprinklers, they’re the best tools we have for protecting our family from fire, injuries and carbon monoxide poisoning.

Types of smoke alarms

With so many options, at varying prices, it’s hard knowing what type of device is best for your home. Whether you live in a newer home that’s wired for interconnected devices, an older home or a condo, here’s a helpful guide on what’s available:

  • Ionization smoke alarms – Generally recognized for being more responsive to fast, flaming fires that feed on combustibles like paper, grease and synthetic material.
  • Photoelectric smoke alarms – Generally recognized for their ability to detect smoke patterns from fires that slowly smoulder before igniting.
  • Battery operated – Typically the cheapest and easiest way to protect homes that aren’t pre-wired for interconnected devices. Battery-operated smoke alarms continue to work through power outages, if the batteries are replaced and tested regularly.
  • 10-year battery powered – Sealed, lithium battery-powered smoke detectors last for ten years, essentially the life of the alarm. They’re always on and also work through a power outage.
  • Hardwired AC operated – These devices are wired to the household’s 120V electrical circuit. They’re interconnected, so if one device detects smoke or fire, all alarms throughout the home go off simultaneously. A power outage can affect these alarms, but many are equipped with a battery backup.

Carbon monoxide detectors

Carbon monoxide is a colourless, odourless and toxic gas that interferes with the body’s ability to transport oxygen by blood. It can leak from anything that burns fossil fuels, including furnaces and exhaust vents for gas appliances, wood burning fireplaces, and exhaust fumes from idling cars.

Exposure to low levels of CO can cause flu-like symptoms such as nausea, dizziness, headaches, confusion, fatigue, and shortness of breath. Exposure to high levels can be fatal. Children, the elderly and people with heart or respiratory conditions may be particularly sensitive to carbon monoxide.

Because you can't see, taste or smell it, CO can affect you and your family before you even know it's there. Carbon monoxide alarms and detectors can warn you when CO reaches a dangerous level, which most commonly happens during cold winter months when furnaces run and windows remained closed.

Types of CO alarms

CO detectors are available with the same power source options as smoke alarms – battery operated, 10-year lithium battery-powered, hardwired – but there are also plug-in AC CO detectors. They plug into standard electrical outlets and, in most cases, have a battery backup to provide protection through power outages.

Combination smoke and CO alarms

2-in-1 devices are readily available and provide the best overall peace of mind. Both ionization and photoelectric alarms are available, and they come in all power source options except plug-in AC alarms.

Alarm and detector installation and maintenance

  • Ensure detectors are installed, cleaned and tested according to the manufacturer's instructions.
  • Replace CO detectors every five to seven years, and smoke detectors every 10 years.
  • Install detectors on each level of your home, including the basement. The best places are in living rooms, where most fires start, and in or near bedrooms to wake you at night. Make sure the units are not covered up by furniture or draperies, or plugged into outlets controlled by a wall switch.
  • Change the batteries as often as recommended by the manufacturer, or when you hear the warning chirp. Never borrow batteries from your smoke detectors for another device.
  • If you experience nuisance alarms caused by steam from the shower or heat from your kitchen, do not remove the battery. Try moving the alarm to a different location, or purchase an alarm with a hush feature that temporarily silences the alarm.

Make sure your family knows what the alarms sound like, and what to do when they hear them. Develop and practice a fire escape plan, and arrange a meeting point a safe distance from your home. Your local fire department is an excellent source of information. Talk to them about fire prevention and carbon monoxide safety for your home.

For added protection, consider adding a fire sprinkler system to your home.