People around the world live in a very dangerous, harmful world with many things that can go wrong. One safe thing people never notice they have, yet can potentially turn dangerous is smoke detectors. Detectors, whether it is for smoke, heat, or carbon monoxide are one of the most common household appliances. These appliances go unnoticed every day and are not even thought to be harmful or potentially dangerous. The beeping pieces of plastic on the ceiling could turn into a hazard if not cared for or installed properly. Detectors do have many benefits, but only if properly used and maintained. Smoke detectors save many lives annually, but detectors do have dangers that it is trying to prevent in the first place. They have the risk of not alerting when there is a threat of fire or smoke, or worse could start a fire because of improper maintenance, such as the wrong battery being placed inside, bad or old wiring, or simply a manufacturing mistake.
No one can deny smoke detectors are simple but valuable objects for preventing fatal house fires. But smoke detectors don’t always prevent the tragic loss of life. Battery-operated detectors work only when they have fresh, functioning batteries inside. Hard-wired detectors operate only if they’re properly installed and have a constant energy source. Short-circuits in wired models—a more common problem than we like to think—can actually spark fires. Homeowners commonly install detectors incorrectly, or install them correctly but fail to maintain them. Even the best detector cannot do its job correctly if it’s poorly installed or maintained.
It cannot be argued that smoke detectors are a necessity in your home, considering fire departments and fire protection agencies carefully and professionally handle and hand them out. But the risk starts if the installation of the product is not efficient and installed properly. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission’s “Considerations For Installation Of Smoke Alarms On Residential Branch Circuits”, the proper installation of a detector is essential in order to decrease the risk of fires starting from detectors. Shortages, overheating wires and overloaded circuits are all ways a fire can start at any time if the installation is not done by a qualified professional.
Wires overheating due to excess current in the detector is one of the main issues that can cause an electrical fire. In a shocking report by Electrical Safety Foundation International (ESFI), all home electrical fires account for an estimated 51,000 fires each year, which accounts for nine percent of all house fires. Electrical distribution systems, including the power source cable into the home, the circuit breaker boxes, and the wires supplying current to all electrical fixtures, are the third leading cause of home structure fires. Therefore, it bears investigating how wired smoke detectors might contribute to a fire catastrophe. An article published by CRM Risk lists many ways wiring can start a fire. Physical damage to wires leading to smoke detectors can cause fire at the device; even correct installations can also become damaged or deteriorate with age; overloaded circuits, especially those mishandled amateur home installers, or that use with large fuses and circuit breakers can result in overheated wires, the breakdown of insulation and eventual short circuits. All are intensified by an overuse of electrical devices, leading to the sad but inevitable conclusion that “more smoke detectors make a home fire more likely.”
Short circuits are a common cause of fires, whether it is from the main power source or the detector itself. According to Elizabeth McGrath’s “What Causes Short Circuits“, a short circuit occurs when part of a wire carrying current touches another wire or part of the circuit and gives the electricity a path of less resistance. For example, if a wire with faulty insulation becomes exposed and touches any type of metal, such as a metal light switch, current can flow along the light switch and result in a shock. Short circuits will produce more heat in a circuit and result in burns and electrical fires. In detectors, faulty installation can cause frayed or exposed wires, leading to a burst of energy through the circuit. This burst of energy creates a current into the detector, leading to heat which it cannot handle.
Something else that can actually cause a fire is the batteries used to power the detectors. But in many incidences, an ordinary item that may be found in the “junk drawer” of a house may have a higher risk of catching fire than you think. Fire Protection Team writes that if a metal object touches the posts of the batteries, the battery may short circuit, which creates enough heat to start a fire. There have been reports of this across the country of these batteries actually starting a fire, and enough that homeowners are launching a campaign to provide awareness of this unexpected hazard. In an article by Battery University, the author discusses safety concerns of lithium batteries and times where they have failed. “In 2006, a one-in-200,000 breakdown triggered a recall of almost six million lithium-ion packs. Sony, the maker of the lithium-ion cells in question, points out that on rare occasion microscopic metal particles may come into contact with other parts of the battery cell, leading to a short circuit within the cell…” These types of batteries, lithium ions, are the same being used in the detectors in houses today. Non-certified batteries, like the Sony ones, are a concern to many detector makers because they are not the intended battery of use.
One shocking example of this was in the town of Apex, North Carolina when a man was sent to the hospital after the battery inside of the smoke detector got so hot, it exploded and shot battery acid in his face. Raleigh’s news station WRAL reports that Greg Emel was changing a battery after it started to sound in the middle of the night and switched to a low battery chirp. Emel took the battery out but it was too late. Even more shocking than just this one story is that people all over the country have reported exploding batteries in a model of First Alert smoke alarms manufactured before October 2000. In this situation, like many others, a battery was being used that the detector was not intended to have inside. On the inside of Emel’s smoke detector, a sticker recommends a Duracell battery, which is the exact one that exploded. First Alert posted a “recommendation” on its website a year ago, saying only specific models of Everready batteries should be used. It says other batteries “may bulge or open” inside the alarm. The makers of the detector do not seem they know the correct battery that should be used. Whether this was an off-brand battery in use or even a trusted one like the Duracell battery, the detector reacted negatively and exploded from the heat, causing an injury that could have been worse, like a fire.
This one terrifying event proves detectors are not “fireproof” even if the best plan is used. Chris Brooke from the Daily Mail reports that in 2011 in Humberside, England, the national fire service conducted a nationwide fire prevention campaign to reduce home fires. Of all competing competitors, the trusted Fire Angel ST 620 detector was supplied because of its “ground-breaking” smoke detection technology and its 10-year power pack. It was also supplied because of its quality and reliability to fire and rescue services for this campaign. This detector is now on alert after one caught fire in a home after ideal and professional installation. Despite the high quality and reliability of the detector, this fired occurred after the low battery chirp sounded, then spontaneously bursting into flames. Mrs. Gray, the homeowner said if her daughter Victoria not been at home to quell the flames, or worse, had she been sleeping in the house, a much worse tragedy might have occurred. The installation campaign has been suspended, which is no comfort to the fire professionals, who know full well how precarious are the homes they haven’t served, with their cheaper, less reliable detectors, poorly located, amateurishly installed by inexperienced homeowners. Chris Blacksell, Humberside’s Director of Safety, was forced to admit: “We have contacted every fire service in the country to find out if there have been any other incidents involving detectors [and] have decided to not fit that type of detector until our investigation is complete.”
Poor maintenance and upkeep of detectors can be a major role in a family’s fire safety. It should be added that in hard-wired detectors, batteries are still used as a backup. So if electricity is lost in a household and that backup battery is dead, there will be no way of knowing if there is smoke in a house or not. A deadly example of this is in an article written by Bruce Krasnow, titled “Fire Starts During Annual Smoke Detector Warning…“, which states that a fire started in a house that did not have smoke detectors at all. If there had been any smoke detectors installed, the lives of four children would not have been lost. Fire investigators said that the fire was smoldering long before it ignited, and if a detector was present, the four children would have been alerted and would have been able to get out safely. It is a tragic story that did not need to happen if a smoke detector was properly installed in the home.
The biggest risk a homeowner can take is not having a detector in their house at all. An alarming statistic by the National Fire Protection Agency states, “Three of every five home fire deaths resulted from fires in homes with no smoke alarms or no working smoke alarms.” If there was a detector in any of those homes, the occupants may have been alerted, had time to react, and exit the house. However, the NFPA also reports that in home fires in which the smoke alarms were present but did not operate, 46% of the smoke alarms had missing or disconnected batteries. That is no longer a detector error, but a homeowner error. No matter how professional an electrician may be or how professionally placed of the detector is, if the homeowner does not care for the detector tragedy is bound to happen. If there had been family had been inside of the house, possibly sleeping, the horror of escaping a house fire would have been a reality.
The safest home is protected by detectors using fresh, intact, certified batteries that are regularly inspected. According to Arthur Lee’s report for the U.S Consumer Product Safety Commission, detector makers have made many improvements for these devices in recent years. Detectors can now be found with the battery life of up to 10 years. Cable Organized discusses maintenance of detectors to ensure they perform correctly in the worst situations. You must clean all detectors of dust and contaminant build-up at least twice a year. You must also replace all detectors at least every 10 years, and change batteries yearly while testing them monthly. A rule of thumb to replace batteries are doing it every time you turn your clocks back for daylight savings time. These are all the best ways to prevent any unwanted false alarms, or worse, no detection of a fire in a house. Along with these safety professional safety tips, new and improved detectors are always coming onto the market, usually advancing with technology. In an article by Haramis Electric, these detectors will alert emergency services automatically if a smoke detector is activated in a home. Also, if a homeowner is away from the house, an alert will still be sent to the police dispatch before the fire can spread.
All the new technology being created creates a better way to prevent overheating or shortage of a detector while detecting smoke efficiently. McGrath states that a short circuit will cause a household breaker to trip, allowing you to see something was shorted out. But there are still some risks and dangers even with this technology and advancing improvements. Internal shortages can happen within a ceiling, which is harder to spot and can lead to a fire if it is not noticed fast enough. As the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission states, there are some techniques being used to cut down electrical fires. Fuses are now being put in place so if overheating does occur, a fuse will be set off, not allowing any more current to go through the circuit. Overheating would be hard to catch, but a small fuse does make it easier to prevent any fires from starting from a detector.
A system of smoke detectors can seem so simple to most homeowners. A professional comes and installs the system, leading to a safe and effective smoke detector system. But these systems are much more than just a bunch of meaningless beeping circles on your ceiling. These detectors go unnoticed because they only mean something when they are going off. Homeowners are interested when they start to go off because of the danger that may be in their house. Some homeowners, however, will not even budge because they might believe it is a false alarm. False alarms are all too common, either because of the batteries inside are starting to die or a detector problem. As a firefighter, most calls our department receives are false alarms triggered because of a dead battery, and after arrival, all occupants are still in the home. I often think, “What if there is a fire?” or “What if all occupants are still inside and they do not realize the risk?” It is a very scary question all fire responders have upon arrival of a call.
A homeowner already worries that fire may break out in their home at any time. To add to the owner’s worries, a safety device is known to alert many of a possible blaze may turn into a time bomb. The wrong wiring or the wrong battery could possibly turn this safety device into a fiery piece of plastic. People should not need to worry about this device along with the many other safety concerns in a home. This seems strange to think about and no one would think that a device used to alert individuals of a fire, could be the reason there is a fire in the first place. As a firefighter, I, like many others, would not think a smoke detector could turn into a ball of flame, even after professional installation, and all the best ways to ensure a safe electrical system. We all see that blinking red light and hear that loud beep, but we never do think it could possibly turn into an inferno on someone.
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Reports and statistics about smoke alarms. (n.d.). Retrieved April 18, 2018, from National Fire Protection Agency, https://www.nfpa.org/Public-Education/By-topic/Smoke-alarms/Reports-and-statistics-about-smoke-alarms