Your Smoke Detector Questions, Answered

I'll admit it: I'm not the greatest cook in the world. I've been known to burn my breakfast toast and, much to my boyfriend's amusement, set off our apartment's smoke detector more than once trying to bake in the oven. It got me thinking that the little ceiling device is an enigma for me. I don't know exactly what sets it off. Nor can I figure out if it's evening beeping is proof that it's working right or that it can taste my cooking. So we've set off to answer a bunch of the most quizzical smoke detector questions. The puzzle is solved—after the jump.

How does a smoke detector work?
It depends on which type you have. An ionization detector monitors for electrically charged particles; when smoke particles enter the chamber, they change the electrical balance of the air. A photoelectric detector uses a beam of light and a light sensor to detect smoke; smoke that enters the chamber changes the amoutn of light that reaches the sensor.

My detector goes off when I cook. How can I stop this?
Either move your smoke alarm a bit further from your kitchen (giving room for small smoke-ups to dissipate), or install heat detectors instead of smoke detectors in the area. If you have an ionization detector, replace it with a photoelectric one, which is less sensitive to smaller smoke particles.

When should I replace my smoke detector?
Whether they're battery powered or wired into your electrical system, smoke detectors should be replaced every 10 years. Just moved in and not sure? Light and blow out a match just below the alarm to test it.

How frequently should I test my smoke alarm?
Once a month is a good maintenance plan. Either push the "test" button on your alarm, or try the match test above. You can also buy pressurized cans of simulated smoke that are designed to test your smoke detector, but be sure to follow the instructions exactly, or you risk ruining your alarm.


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I have a battery powered smoke detector. How do I know when to change the batteries?
It should start to chirp. But you can also test it's functionality with any of the tests above. Even if it passes every test, you should replace batteries annually. A good reminder is to chance batteries when you're re-setting your clock for the fall time change.

How should I clean my smoke detector?
Vacuum it once a month to dust it and get rid of debris and cobwebs. Regular maintenance can also help get rid of residue from cooking vapors and insects.

How many smoke detectors should my home have?
You should have at least one smoke alarm on every floor in your house. An even better idea is to keep one in each bedroom. Heavy sleepers might not wake for an alarm sounding down the hallway. Be sure not to install them to near to vents or windows which can decrease their effectiveness.

(Images: Flickr user sickmonk under license from Creative Commons, Flickr user Slightlynorth under license from Creative Commons)

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Taryn is a writer, maker, and designer based in Atlanta, and editor of lifestyle blog Formal Fringe. She loves her fiance, her dog Bacon, and collecting beer koozies when she travels.

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