Fire Alarms
Fire Alarms

It's a familiar fear-what happens if a fire starts when you're asleep, or if you're busy in a different part of the house? Well, if you have a working fire alarm, you hear an alarm and either catch the fire in time to put it out yourself, or get out of the house safely with your family and call the fire department.

Fire alarms are among the most common household safety devices, and with good reason-a well-placed smoke detector can be a serious life-saver if a fire breaks out. And since they're so inexpensive (you can find battery-powered alarms at your local Wal-Mart for less than $7), there's no excuse not to have at least one in your home.

Types of Fire Alarms

There are two main types of smoke detectors: photoelectric detectors and ionization detectors. Both are effective fire alarms, depending on the type of fire you may have to deal with.

A photoelectric detector senses a disruption in light; it sends out a light beam, and when smoke gets in the way, it scatters the light onto a sensor, which sets off the alarm. This type of smoke detector is good for smoldering fires, which give off a lot of smoke.

An ionization detector operates differently, using a small amount of radioactive material to ionize the atoms inside the chamber-that is, to give them an electrical charge. Once they're charged, they can create a small electrical current; however, when smoke comes in, it disrupts the ionization process. This causes the current to stop, which triggers the alarm. Ionization detectors are good for flaming fires, which give off smaller combustion particles.

Ionization detectors also tend to be cheaper than photoelectric detectors, and they have the additional advantage of an automatic low-battery warning: when the battery gets low, so does the electric current, and that sets off the alarm. Since a fire alarm is useless if the battery is dead, this is a convenient feature; however, no matter which type of smoke detector you get, you should make sure to check the batteries regularly.

Where to Put Your Fire Alarm, and How to Put It There

Ideally, you should have at least one fire alarm on every floor of your home or office-preferably one in every room. Good places for smoke detectors include stairways, hallways, bedrooms, and offices. It's better not to put them in places like kitchens, bathrooms, or garages, since cooking elements, steam, or car exhaust may set them off unnecessarily.

As far as convenience goes, the easiest fire alarms to install are the stand-alone battery-powered kind (these are also the cheapest). You can also get fire alarms that interface with your security system, which cost slightly more and can be either wired or wireless. Alternatively, you can get fire alarms that are connected to a remote monitoring center. Whichever kind you get, make sure it's UL-approved.

Once you've decided what kind of fire alarm you want and where it's going to go, the next step is installing it. If you have a battery-powered smoke detector, all you have to do is follow the directions and use a drill and screws to mount it on the ceiling.

However, if your smoke detector connects to your security system or a monitoring center, you'll need to either route the wires along the ceiling to the security control panel on your wall, or have a professional come and install the system for you. It's important to note that in some areas, fire safety regulations require a trained professional to install any type of smoke detector. Check with your local fire department before you install yours.

Remember, too, that a fire alarm alone won't prevent injury in a fire. You also need a good fire escape plan, and you need to drill it with your family so everyone knows how to get out safely. One way or another, though, a fire alarm is a valuable tool that can mean the difference between life and death.