Robin Jade Conde

PODCAST: Photoelectric smoke alarms: you’re not a conspiracy theorist if there’s really a conspiracy (with Skip Walker)

It’s Fire Prevention Week!
Skip Walker, the owner of Walker Property Evaluation Services from San Bruno, California, joins today’s show to talk about fire safety. He is one of the authors of the Code Check series and is well-rounded about home inspections and building codes, and is multi-awarded by ASHI.
Skip mentions that there are roughly 3,000 fire-related deaths in US homes. He discusses the types of smoke alarms such as ionization and photoelectric alarms. These have different purposes, criteria and performance standards, and testing standards. He highlights the failure rates of one product that cause mortality and the success rate of the other.
Reuben shares an investigative report about challenging the government standards in fire alarm technology. Skip mentions that the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) who oversees these are aware of the failure rates but are inefficient in communicating and addressing these concerns. He points out that it’s not a smoke alarm problem but a systematic one.
They also talk about how to identify the type of alarms, their technology development, the stand of firefighters in the fire alarm products, and other smoke detection products. They share their preferred alarm, why it’s economically convenient and safer.



The following is a transcription from an audio recording. Although the transcription is largely accurate, in some cases it may be slightly incomplete or contain minor inaccuracies due to inaudible passages or transcription errors.


Bill Oelrich: Our conversation today is gonna focus around fire safety because we’re in the middle of Fire Safety Week here in the United States. Welcome, everyone. You’re listening to Structure Talk, a Structure Tech presentation. My name is Bill Oelrich alongside Tessa Murry and Reuben Saltzman, as always, your three-legged stool, coming to you from the Northland, talking all things houses, home inspections, and anything else that’s rattling around in our brains.


BO: Welcome to today’s episode. We’re very excited to be having a conversation with a good friend of ours from way out on the West Coast, Skip Walker, owner of Walker Property Evaluation Services, coming from the beautiful city of San Bruno, California. Good morning, Skip. How are you doing? 


Skip Walker: Good morning, guys. How are you doing? 


BO: Awesome.


Tessa Murry: Great.


BO: Our conversation today is gonna focus around fire safety and this is something that… We’ve got some controversial topics we’re gonna cover today. This is gonna put people on the edge of their seat. I can promise you that. Let’s kinda jump into this a little bit, Skip. I want you to introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about why you’re so passionate about fire safety, but also tell us about some of the other projects you’re working on and then we’ll kind of circle back to the fire safety business. But I want you to talk about Code Check right away, too, as well.


Reuben Saltzman: Well, and you know what, before I even let you do that, Skip, I’m just gonna step on this and I gotta gush about Skip for a minute or two here before he gets into it. I know Skip because he’s been beating this drum on smoke alarm safety for a long time. He’s been heavily involved in ASHI, the American Society of Human Inspectors. He’s taught two-hour classes at a bunch of different national conferences on that one single topic, smoke alarms, and he’s… He made a believer out of me that there is some serious differences in the smoke alarms out there; our laws are probably wrong and not only is he a huge proponent of this and passionate about it, but he is a very well-rounded guy when it comes to home inspections and building codes. He’s one of the authors of the entire Code Check series. So I just…


RS: I wanna say a little bit more ’cause I know Skip is not gonna brag himself up appropriately, so I’m doing it for you, Skip. So, I was there at some of these conferences. You’ve won a bunch of awards from ASHI, too, like Member of the Year and John Cox Award, and I don’t remember what else but you won… I think there was one year where you cleaned the table, you won every award they had, I think. So alright, now we’ll turn it over to you, Skip.


SW: Can they see me? ‘Cause I’m blushing. [laughter]


RS: No, just us, man.


SW: No, I actually remember, this is in 2010, Douglas Hansen, who at that time was just… He was a colleague, now he’s… We’re co-authors on Code Check, called me and said, “We just had this guy at Golden Gate ASHI speak, and you guys need to get him over at Silicon Valley ASHI, he’s a fire chief from Albany, California and the guy he’s talking about smoke alarms, and you’re not gonna believe what he has to say, and it’s really important.” And the fire chief was a guy named Marc McGinn, who at that time was the fire chief in Albany, small city, I think they’ve got… It’s literally about 1-1.5 square miles, 5000 people, small city, but this guy was on fire. Comes over to our chapter, starts talking about ionization smoke alarms and photoelectric smoke alarms, and what works and doesn’t work, and how people are dying.


SW: And to put it bluntly, I was pissed off when he got done, ’cause I talk to clients and Reuben, I know you guys are doing the same thing and I used to tell people, “It doesn’t matter, they all detect smoke, buy the cheapest ones, the ones that talk to you, it doesn’t matter, blah, blah, blah.” And what I was telling people to do is to buy ionization smoke alarms. As you know, I can talk for hours on this stuff, so you’ll have to hit the pause button when it’s appropriate…


RS: We’ll bring it in if we need to, yeah.


SW: But the long and the short of it is, that an ionization alarm will fail to detect a fire and people will die 55% of the time, so…


RS: 55% of the time? I…


SW: So 55% failure rate in a real fire on an ionization smoke alarm for a variety of reasons. But anyway, that was McGinn’s message. And I remember, I went up to him later on after he was done talking, and I said, “You know what, you got our attention,” and I said, “I know folks at the national level in ASHI, I know people at CREIA in a state level, we’re gonna do something about this.” And a couple of years later… I’ve stayed in touch with Marc, he’s since retired. But he told me and said, “Every time I do a talk, people would come up to me afterwards and say, “I’m really upset and we’re gonna do something about this.” He said, “You guys are the only ones that did it.” Anyway, so that’s kind of how I got started on this. And it just infuriated me that we lose roughly 3000 people a year in the US to fire deaths in residential, two-thirds of those, needless deaths. If I could wave my magic wand and put photoelectric alarms in every home in the United States, our fire death rate would drop 40% to 60% overnight.


BO: Crazy.


SW: Everybody knows. The CPSC knows, the NIST, which is National Institute of Standards and Testing, which is a federal government agency, they know, NFPA knows, ICC knows. Everybody knows, yet here we are. They’ve known since the ’70s. So I’ve got documents going back into the ’70s, I have thousands of pages of stuff.


RS: Skip, what are the different smoke alarms out there? ‘Cause we’re gonna jump right into it. We said ionization’s bad, but give us the…


SW: The long and the short of it? 


RS: The long and short, yeah.


SW: Yeah, so ionization alarms use a little bit of radioactive material to ionize the air and what they detect is changes in that electrical field caused by particle flow through ’em, which is maybe more technical than you guys wanna get. But anyway, they are really good at detecting fast-moving, very small particles. Fires don’t make fast-moving small particles, they make slow, big particles. So ionization smoke alarms were originally designed… And you may recognize the name, a guy named Walter Kidde. I think it was Walter back in World War I built the first ionization detector to go on ammunition ships to detect fires because fires on ships carrying things that blow up is bad.


SW: He sold these things to the government and whatnot for World War I, but that’s how that company started. When they were done with the war, they started trying to figure out other stuff they could do with this gizmo. By the ’60s and ’70s, they started building smoke alarms or what they called smoke alarms. They’re really flame detectors. So that’s an ionization alarm. It’s actually intended or was designed originally to detect flames. And one of the core problems with it is, is that there’s a mismatch between the kind of material that occurs in smoke in a real fire and that that occurs in things like cooking. So if you cook, if you broil a hamburger or you burn a piece of toast, those produce fast moving small particles.


SW: So ionization alarms are really good at detecting those. That’s why I have people all the time say, “My alarms work because they go off every time I cook.” Well, what I know automatically is they’ve got the wrong kind of smoke alarms. They’re gonna know every time someone burns a piece of toast and they’re gonna sleep through a smoldering fire, where their couch or their mattress is burning and ultimately, have a high probability of death. So ionization alarms are effective for what they were intended to do, but what they’re intended to do isn’t to detect a fire that occurs in residential homes.


SW: Photoelectric alarms are basically, and this is a bad analogy, but if you think about the sensors that cross your garage door, where you’ve got a sensor and a receiver, and the smoke or something obstructs that path, it causes the garage door to stop. In this case, you’ve got sensors in there, the smoke disrupts the path and it sets the alarm off. It actually works a little differently than that, but that’s close enough for government purposes.


SW: That alarm will detect slow moving large particles really well. I talked about the ionization alarms having a 55% failure rate, real number. University of Texas ran a big four-year study on this and that was the number they came up with. Photoelectric alarms have a 96% success rate. So, ionization alarms have a 55% failure rate overall in real fires across all types of conditions and that includes failures that occur because people have intentionally disconnected them or they do the nuisance stripping, like if they burn toast and they get annoyed, they take the batteries out. So the 55% number includes units that have been intentionally disabled by the occupants. Photoelectric on the other hand has a 96% success rate. So no smoke alarm is a 100% effective because fire is too unpredictable. But literally by changing smoke alarms, you can go from a 55% chance of dying to a 4% chance of dying. So you effectively double survival rates by simply changing the smoke alarms.


BO: Skip, can I just unpack a couple of things here? Because my mind immediately goes to, when were photoelectric first put into production and what’s the major stumbling block to changing this, as just take the ionization off the shelf? What’s so hard about that? 


SW: A question that I’ve asked myself many times. [chuckle] I guess part of it is a lot of us are wired differently than other people and human life actually is meaningful. If I were an exec at a company like, to name a name, Kidde or BRK First Alert, who makes both kinds, they make photoelectric alarms, they make ionization alarms, and I went home and looked at my kids and whatnot, I wouldn’t wanna be making alarms that kill people. I’d wanna be making alarms that save people, which is theoretically the business they’re in. What it really comes down to is the same rationale that we run into or have run into, where automakers continue to make cars that blow up when people hit them from the back end because it costs $7 more per car to make that not happen and it’s cheaper to settle a few lawsuits. It’s that same bean counter mentality that allows this to happen. That sounds pretty harsh. If you want my honest opinion, that’s really what… It’s economics.


RS: If I can jump in, I just gotta share something because there’s a video that Tessa and I share at all these classes that we teach to real estate agents and there’s a little section where we do talk about photoelectric smoke alarms and there was a great investigative thing by Rossen Reports and it was from 2012 and they were at the Texas A&M lab or whatever. And I remember they interviewed this guy and Rossen is going, “So if we know that people are dying, why doesn’t the government change their standards?” And the guy from Texas A&M says they will only respond when there is government pressure to do so. And he goes, “So we went straight to the source and we went straight to the Consumer Product Safety Commission who oversees this.” And he asked the guy at the CPSC, I mean, straight up, he says, “Why do we have two technologies?” And the guy’s like, “Well, they’re both working.” And he goes, “Well, we have several cases where they didn’t work and we know stories where people have died.” And the guy from CPSC, he goes, “Well, then they, they, they, they, they, they need to develop a better escape plan.” [chuckle] And I mean, the guy was just a stammering… I’ll be nice, he didn’t have a good answer. Let’s put it that way.


SW: His name was Lee. He was the Head of the Engineering section at CPSC. I know most of the people that were on that Rossen Report. The guy… And now I’m flaking on what his name was, that runs the engineering department there, the article I had for the ASHI Reporter on photoelectric alarms, he peer reviewed that article for me before it was published. And Jay Fleming flew down from Boston, he’s the deputy fire chief and probably one of the most knowledgeable people in the US on that topic, he was there at the Rossen Texas A&M story. So I know Lee is, he’s CPSC, I can’t think of the guy’s first name, Kaye at the time was the head of the CPSC, the chair person. I know a guy that actually had a meeting, actually three meetings with those two, and they admitted it in a private meeting that they knew, but they couldn’t figure out how to do the messaging on this, so that they didn’t look like they had effectively allowed a product that killed 40,000 people on the market and come back later and say, “Oops, we shouldn’t have done that.” It’s really embarrassing. The reality of the CPSC is, do you know how many products the CPSC has ever recalled? 


RS: How many? 


TM: Good question.


SW: None.


BO: Oh, jeez. [chuckle]


TM: Really? 


RS: Well, they don’t recall products.


SW: They can. They can recall products.


RS: What? 


SW: But one of the criteria, all the recalls you see are, if you look, they’re voluntary recalls, and there was the manufacturer said, “We’re gonna take this off the market. The CPSC, one of their criteria is that the recall can’t cause undue financial hardship to the manufacturer, so the…


TM: Oh my gosh.


SW: The sad reality of this is the bigger the problem is, the harder it is to recall something, because if they recalled every smoke alarm, every ionization smoke alarm ever made, it’d put two big companies out of business.


RS: Sure.


SW: So they…


TM: I remember Reuben they say, oh, sorry to interrupt Skip, but in that Rossen Report, they say, so ultimately, the reason we still have ionization smoke alarms is because it’s a business decision.


SW: Yup.


RS: Yes.


SW: The crux of the why we have both of them comes down to the way testing standards are developed in the United States, and actually in Canada. We have something called a consensus standard protocol. And so, UL, Underwriters Laboratory, NFPA, National Fire Protection Association, ICC, the government delegates to these organizations and many others, the ability to make standards that are then adopted into law and codified as the standard for a given product’s performance or whatnot.


SW: There’s a UL Standard for window blind safety, how the cords have to be made and whatnot. There’s a standard for smoke alarm performance, there’s a standard for carbon monoxide performance. So the standard process sounds fairly rational. A third of the people come from government and academia, a third of the people come from industry and a third are what are called public members, and that’s usually about 40… I think that UL 217 standard for smoke alarms has 42 people on it, two of them are non-voting, one’s a UL non-voting person and one’s a CPSC, like Lee is on the UL 217 smoke alarm committee. So they get together and they decide what the criteria are for these smoke alarms, at what level, how do we test them? What do we do to make smoke? How dense does the smoke get? How do we measure the smoke? It’s just serious minutia, engineering geek stuff. It sounds like this should be a rational way to do it and it is at one level. The problem is that the good and the bad news is that it takes a two-thirds vote to pass a change to the standard and the manufacturers control one-third of the votes, so…


RS: Skip…


TM: Yeah.


SW: There was a…


RS: I’m speechless.


SW: There was a Naval admiral back in the ’70s that ran Naval Procurement and he said of the standards process, that the standards represent the lowest level of performance acceptable to the manufacturers, this is… And he’s talking about Naval weapons, he’s not talking about, he’s not… And ships and stuff. He’s not talking about smoke alarms, but it’s, the same thing applies. So as long as the manufacturers have their basically their finger on that trigger and they don’t allow change to occur, change won’t occur because it’s gonna cost somebody money to change from ionization to photoelectric and they’re making money. I had somebody come up to me after I did a class at ASHI and they said… ‘Cause I always feel kind of apologetic, it sounds like I’m some kind of conspiracy nut, and somebody came up to me afterwards and they said, “You’re not a conspiracy nut if there’s really a conspiracy.” [chuckle] I thought, “Okay, I feel better now.” [laughter]


BO: That’s great.


SW: But it really is, and it’s not just smoke alarms. I know a lady, she lost her two-year-old to strangulation, literally from window blinds, so she got herself on the UL window blind committee, and they’re doing the same thing, the people that make corded blinds don’t wanna stop making corded blinds. So they never approve a change to the standard that allows, that prohibits them from making it, and they instead put requirements in that you put these stupid little labels that said, that say, “Don’t let your kid get strangled on the cords” instead of making cordless blinds, which fixes the problem. So it’s not a smoke alarm problem, it’s a systemic problem with the way we develop standards, and it’s sort of the dark side of capitalism, that there are people out there that put profit above human life.


RS: Yeah, so Skip, I wanna just talk about something I hear a lot is that we teach these classes, and I hear a lot of home inspectors say, “Well, yeah, so all you gotta do if you wanna be safest is you just install dual sensor smoke alarms, just buy the really expensive ones”, like we have both an ionization and a photoelectric sensor, and that gives you the greatest level of protection, right? 


SW: In theory, that sounds like a perfect solution. I will tell you, Marc again, my Albany Fire Chief had a good response to that. He said, if you take a bucket with clean water and you take a bucket with muddy water, and you mix them together, is that better? And the answer is no, you take something that doesn’t work and you take something that does work and you combine them, the outcome can’t be better than the pure solution. So the initial dual alarms had some really serious problems. They actually did change the standard, the 217 standard for that, they used to require… The standard would require that if it was a dual sensor, that both sensors had to trigger in order for the alarm to actually sound.


[overlapping conversation]


RS: They made it more difficult.


SW: So the photoelectric… Yeah, it was never any better than the ionization alarm.


BO: The worst case scenario.


SW: Yeah, exactly. Which is defeated the purpose… Anyway, they made it so you can’t have “and” logic, it wasn’t a photo and ionization had to trigger, they require “or” logic in those, where if the photo goes off or the ionization goes off, then you trigger. So since the photo’s almost 96% of the time gonna go off faster than the ionization alarm, all you’re doing is making more money for the smoke alarm manufacturer by buying the dual sensor alarms, and you get the added benefit of having nuisance trips from the ionization alarm triggering when you burn toast.


SW: So you get annoyed and you can own an alarm that does what a photoelectric alarm does. I was suspecting one time and I happened to do a place, and the agent told me ahead of time that the guy work for a smoke alarm company, so I was intrigued, ’cause I was in the thick of this. So I’m doing this guy’s… It was a townhouse over on the coast and we got to talking, and I always give people my smoke alarm talk. Sometimes you wanna try to save the world one house at a time.


SW: So I get on my soapbox and I give him the photoelectric speech, virtually every time I have a buyer or a seller in front of me. He was funny ’cause he said, “It sounds like you’ve been talking to that crazy fire chief over in the East Bay.” [laughter] And I said, “Do you mean Marc McGinn?” And he’s like, “Yeah, that guy.” I said, “Well, first off, I don’t think he’s that crazy.” Anyway he said, “Well… ” He said, “I worked for Kidde. I’m like the Northern California regional sales technical sales rep.” Anyway, we had a conversation about it and he was giving me the company line. But the real… I think the really telling thing was when I went through his house and inspected, 100% of the alarms were photoelectric alarms. He could have bought anything he wanted, he could have had dual alarms, he didn’t. He could have had ionization alarms, he didn’t. He could have had one of each, didn’t, he had photo alarms.


RS: Crazy.


TM: Wow.


BO: Skip, where do the real authorities like the guys who are fighting fires and such, where do they come in on what you should put in your house, the combo or whatever? 


SW: Well, the International Association of Firefighters, which is the largest firefighters union in the US and Canada, last time I knew they had like 330,000 members, yeah, there’s a lot of firefighters out there, they have an official position since the late ’90s, so over 20 years, that says, “Photoelectric-only alarms, no combination alarms, that’s our position.” And the reason I think they’d passed that is really simple, if you have ionization alarms, and your fire truck that you’re on rolls up in front of the house, you can almost bet that the alarms went off late, and if it’s an occupied house there’s probably still people inside, so you’ve gotta send your union members inside that burning building to rescue people or pull bodies out, worst case.


SW: If they’re photoelectric alarms, you pull up and out upfront and you get to stand there and throw water on it, because everybody got warned ahead of time, and most of the people would have been evacuated out and sitting on the curb waiting for you to show up to put the fire out. Which one of those fires do you wanna be involved in fighting? I’m sure it’s exciting to go inside a burning building, but it’s also exciting not to die. So…


BO: Well, and these guys are under enough stress the way it is, and these ladies, too, having to deal with fatalities at a scene is probably the last thing you ever wanna see.


SW: Yeah, it’s not a job I could do and I bless them for signing up for it. So anyway, that’s the International Association Of Firefighters. The fire chiefs… A lot of this is political, I don’t have any delusions about it, there’s a lot of politics in this because there’s a lot of money involved in it, there’s heavy lobbying, like I said, the various standards organizations, NFPA and UL, everybody knows… I was at a building officials meeting here locally, I go to ICC, International Code Council chapter meetings locally, and I’ve done the smoke alarm talk for our county building departments at one of their monthly meetings. We have a UL office actually in San Jose, it’s one of their… On the West Coast, I think it’s their big office, and they always have a UL guy there.


SW: The UL guy pulled me aside, not that meeting, but one of the other ones, I think he wasn’t there when I talked, and he said, “I need to get you set straight,” and he said, “You’re just confused about what’s going with these. There isn’t a problem, we’re doing a good job.” So I asked him, I said, “There’s a UL report called Smoke Characterization study they did in 2007.” I said, “Sir, are you familiar with that report?” And he said, “Oh, yeah, I’m really familiar with it.” I said, “So, if I look on page 109 in table 25, can you explain the data in there that shows that ionization alarms didn’t go off and photoelectric alarms went off 100% of the time?” and I said, “Help me understand how I’m misreading that,” and he said, “I’ll have somebody else give you a call.”




SW: I never heard from anybody.


RS: Oh, I can’t believe it.


SW: I was shocked. The whole thing… I know it sounds crazy, but the bottom line is, the house I’ve got, we used to have nuisance alarms all the time; every time we broil a steak or burn toast, the stereotypical, the alarms would go off, and you’re there with the windows open, waving stuff to try to get the smoke out of it, away from the alarm. I put in photoelectric alarms and literally not a peep out of them since. And yet, I sleep better at night knowing that the alarms will actually function if something bad happens.


BO: Can we circle back to the technology inside the photoelectrics and just, when was that first put into practice? The thing I’m always amazed, I used to work in the medical industry, and there was a metal that came out of the space industry that we used in orthopedics because it had this super adherence to the human body. Anyway, I digress; was there something that was like an accidental find that was technology that they put into these or was it developed specifically for the smoke alarm? You gave a great analogy about the eyes on the garage door, was it really like, “Well, let’s just make smaller eyes and put it inside this thing”? 


SW: I don’t know who came up with the original photoelectric alarms, but the first alarms started showing up in the ’60s in terms of residential. I think Sears was selling ’em. And those were ionization alarms, the first UL standard for smoke alarms was developed in the… Kind of in the mid-’70s, if memory serves. At that time, ionization alarms were popular because they wanted a battery-powered alarm where a nine-volt battery would let it last one year. So that was… The one-year battery thing was key, and I get that. At that time, photoelectric alarms, which they had back in the mid to late ’70s was when the first ones came out, they used incandescent bulbs, which burn out and a nine-volt battery would not power them for an entire year. And then the other bad thing, since it was an incandescent bulb, it generated a little bit of heat and some light, and bugs would actually wanna fly into them and set ’em off because they get in there and die.


SW: So it wasn’t until the early ’80s that LEDs first started to come in and at that point, they switched photoelectric alarms over to LEDs, which they still use. They got that in one year, but the problem then was, if you remember the old TI watches, no, none of you guys are old enough for that, the old Texas Instrument LED watches, those things were like a couple of hundred bucks. LEDs were really expensive back then. Today, they’re a commodity; back then they were a little bit… They were more expensive. But they work better, the ionization alarms were cheaper and they worked really poorly, but they were cheaper.


BO: There was something in your house. People felt that.


SW: It was something… And the original UL standard, which the current standard, actually… The current standard that’s in effect, I’m gonna have to be careful because there’s a new standard coming into play here… The standard that’s currently in effect was only designed to give you a 50% survival rate in a fire.


TM: I’ve got a quick question for you, Skip. For people that are listening to us that are home inspectors when they’re going through a house, hopefully now with this knowledge, they can help educate their clients about the difference. But how do you identify what type of smoke alarm you have? Is there words that you can look for on the back of it or something that will tell you if it doesn’t say ionization or photoelectric on it? 


SW: There is. For a home inspector, it’s tough because most of the time, we’re not going to take the alarms down, and a lot of times, you have to take the alarms down. The newish alarms will have an embossed I or P on the face, so I can sometimes take my flashlight, shine it on and be able to see that I or a P, if it says I, it’s an ionization alarm. If it says P, it’s a photoelectric. If you do see the back, if it says anything about radioactive material, it’s ionization. It’ll have just a few micrograms of this stuff, just enough to make the ionized field, but you can’t have an ionization alarm without radioactive material.


TM: Okay.


SW: If it doesn’t say anything, it will be a photoelectric. They don’t make it easy to tell. For a while, if you went over to Costco, they only sell photoelectric alarms that I’ve seen at any Costco I’ve ever been in, which I’ve never figured out why. But there’s a back story there, someplace.


RS: Just one more reason to love Costco. Go on.


SW: Yep. The Costco alarms would say, “Use these for best protection,” which always struck me as being a pretty stupid marketing approach. Like, “Yeah, I want the alarms that don’t give me good protection. So I want the alarms where part of my family… The in-laws, maybe will die.” Anyway, no, it’s just… They’ll say things like, for kitchens, meaning they don’t nuisance trip. They’ll say things like, “for best protection.” They won’t say anything about any kind of radioactive material. The photos also have a slightly different… Usually different opening in them. I can tell by looking at them like probably 95% of the time, you have to kind of work at it. I guess, is the bottom line.


RS: And you know, just a touch on the home inspection process, you talk about taking down the smoke alarm. I think I’ve personally done maybe a couple of thousand smoke alarms where I give it the twist. I look at the back, I put it back up. Sure, for other home inspectors out there listening, you might not be able to get it back up easily. I’ve had my share of ones that weren’t easy to put up, but I’m also saying, I’ve done it to a lot of ’em. So do that at your own risk.


SW: Yeah, and I do something in mine that I know a lot of my brethren cringe at, I test them. I actually hit the button and the button does not test the ability to detect smoke. It tests for power and audible horn. So the UL standard, actually, is the only approved method to test a smoke alarm and the UL standard requires that button on it. So that’s intentional because the complexity of testing the sensor is so high that you’d never be able to make a smoke alarm that anybody could afford to buy. But we know if it makes noise, that there’s a 50-50 chance it’s gonna work, or better in a fire. So… You know what? Hitting the test button gives me some level of confidence that at least, there’s a prayer. If it doesn’t go off, I know it’s not going to work at all. So there’s a 100% failure rate on alarms that don’t actually sound and there’s a chance that they might work on ones that do.


SW: So my suggestion for the… Any home inspectors out there is, I never say that the smoke alarm worked when I tested it. I just say that there’s a smoke alarm in the bedroom or whatever. I do say, if the smoke alarm doesn’t go off that it didn’t go off and it should be, we have an on-sale requirement. So it’s the seller’s responsibility in California to provide functional smoke alarms. I actually say, “The alarm failed to test using the manufacturer’s built-in button. It should be serviced or replaced prior to the close of escrow” because that’s the seller’s legal requirement here. Not the same elsewhere in the US. But anyway, so the whole idea of testing smoke alarms and home inspectors, if you wanna start an argument, at one of our chapter meetings, start talking about that… Well, two things, how to strap a water heater for seismic and testing smoke alarms, you can have a knock-down-drag-out fight that spills out to the parking lot.


BO: You can even bring up mold. [laughter]


SW: Yeah.




BO: Let’s talk about mold.


SW: Oh yeah. [chuckle]


BO: Before we go into a rathole like that, [chuckle] Skip, is there anything else in the market that a consumer might run across that claims to be an alarm when it comes to smoke detection? 


SW: Well, there’s a few bizarre older things, there’s a wind-up deal that Sears used to sell, that’s really a heat sensor. I’ve had agents actually try to pass those off as smoke alarms. They literally are a wind-up, like an old wind-up clock, with a little fuse link in them, that’s almost an antique kind of novelty item. There’s a new generation. We talked about the UL standard. They finally have developed a new UL standard. I know three gentlemen that are on that Standards Committee, out of the 42 people and one of them was trying since 1990, I wanna say seven, when he first got on the committee, to get a revised standard that put in nuisance trip testing and changed the material testing from natural products like cotton and wool and pine, to polyurethane foam, which is a big, big problem for ionization alarms, but very prevalent in how it’s just…


SW: He’s been getting that, trying to get that standard changed, to change the test protocol. They finally enacted one, the problem is they… Well, they finally developed one, they have not enacted it yet. So the current standard that’s published on the UL site is the ninth edition of the UL 217 standard, and it includes testing with polyurethane foam for smoldering and flaming tests, as well as for nuisance trip, where they actually, they actually broil hamburgers and that the alarm isn’t allowed to trip when the hamburger burns.


BO: That’s gotta go when the foam burns? 


SW: Yup, it has to be able to differentiate. So there’s a new generation of smoke alarms being developed. The biggest problem with this is CPSC and UL don’t want any one manufacturer to have a monopoly on the market and right now, Kidde is the only one that’s developed a smoke alarm that complies with the new UL 217, eigth and ninth standard. So BRK First Alert hasn’t been able to do it and I don’t know the rationale behind that, it doesn’t seem like it’s that complicated. Kidde actually came out with some of these new alarms even ahead of the adoption of the standard, that once the standard is adopted, then as states roll that into their building codes and their health and safety codes, it’s you’re not gonna be able to sell an alarm that doesn’t comply in the US, that doesn’t meet that standard, at least that’s newly manufactured, the supply chain, they let run through.


SW: So the standard development process, as we talked about, is deeply flawed. So what happened was the manufacturers that lobbied for one of the parameters to be pretty loose in hopes that they would get ionization alarms to be able to comply, in fact, they couldn’t even, with this loosened testing criteria, that one of the side effects of that was, then the new Kidde alarm, which is basically a two-photoelectric sensor alarm with light filters on it, so that it detects different colors of light, it enhances its ability to detect multiple colors of smoke, that caused that alarm to not be as effective as it probably should have been. And I think they manufactured something like 500,000 of these things. They ended up having to recall the whole bunch. So the long and the short is, yes, there’s new stuff coming.


SW: They call it optical, it’s a photoelectric alarm. They didn’t wanna say photoelectric, ’cause then they would have actually kind of been back-door admitting that they were making ionization alarms that really weren’t as effective as they could have been, so there’s some marketing guy involvement and probably a legal involvement in there, but the bottom line is when those alarms come to market, they will be better than photoelectric-only alarms because of some of the testing that they’re doing, but they are basically photoelectric alarms and they’ll only be maybe 5% to 10% more effective. So instead of 96%, they might be 97%, 98% maybe on a good day. So today, there’s no significant loss to just putting in photoelectric alarms, we already know they work, they virtually eliminate nuisance tripping.


SW: Nuisance tripping and intentional disconnects account for almost two-thirds of fire deaths, so if you want the best protection, put in photo alarms and by the time those alarms go bad in 10 years, there may be something better and you can deal with it then. If I had a house with photoelectric alarms, I wouldn’t go out and buy the new generation alarms, there’s just not any economic benefit to doing that.


BO: Yeah, interesting. There’s a lot of depth to this conversation that you wouldn’t initially think, it’s like, put this or put that one up or put this one up and… But thank you for that. I mean, it’s just… Sometimes when you get into the minutia, the eyes roll up in the back of people’s heads, but yet, we’re talking to 40, 35 to 40% difference in outcomes that are good versus bad, that’s pretty significant.


SW: Yeah, you go from 55% failure rate to 96 success, it’s… You’re essentially doubling survival rates.


BO: Good.


SW: And at Costco, it’s two for 35 bucks around here. That’s a pretty cheap life insurance policy.


RS: Yeah.


BO: A lot less than what I pay for them. [laughter]


RS: Yeah, so just to kind of wrap it all up, if you don’t know what type of smoke alarm you have, you probably have ionization. I used to go around checking these, and it’s like 95% of what I’d look at will be ionization. So if you don’t know, you probably got the wrong ones, if you wanna know for sure, give your test of smoke alarm a little twist. If you see the word radioactive on the back side of it, it’s the one you don’t want. Go ahead and replace your smoke alarms, get photoelectric. There’s not a huge difference in price. If your smoke alarms are yellow, they’re surely more than 10 years old and they need to be replaced anyway, no matter what type of smoke alarm you have, they have a shelf life, or not a shelf life, they have a life of 10 years, so you gotta replace them regularly anyways, and make sure you have them in all the places where you should have them. It means in a common area on every level, you need to put them inside of every bedroom and well, that’s all I can think of. Make sure that your house is safe. It’s Fire Safety Week. That’s why we got Skip Walker on here.


BO: Thank you, Reuben, for the tutorial. I just have to relay one story when I was with Reuben early on in my brief inspection career, we were in a house that had literally smoke alarms every 15 feet, and open the attic hatch and the whole attic was just burned out. It was remediated clearly from a fire and you were like, “I knew that was gonna be there.” You don’t look around in a small house and see seven smoke alarms and not know what happened. They had a fire here and now they’re super freaked out they’re gonna have another fire, so…


SW: If they had an attic fire and they lived to talk about it, they’re really lucky because when a fire hits an attic, the fire department could be out front…


RS: It… Yeah, it wasn’t an attic fire…


SW: And they’re not gonna be able to save that house.


RS: It was not charred, it was just black.


SW: Oh okay.


RS: ‘Cause of all the smoke they got up there, so… Well, it was actually white at the time we went there, they had sprayed everything white.


SW: So it was probably a kitchen fire that had generated a lot of smoke.


RS: You know what it was? I remember that story… Gosh, we gotta wrap, we’re at time, but who cares? I remember the story, their furnace caught on fire, their furnace malfunctioned and there was some type of electrical fire that happened in their furnace, and it spread black smoke throughout their entire house; they couldn’t even see and not a single smoke alarm in their house went off, nothing and they had new smoke alarms everywhere. They’re all ionization, and they let the smoke alarm company have it and the smoke alarm company sent them like a huge box of photoelectric smoke alarms and CO alarms, and everything you could imagine as an apology, that was the back story on that one.


SW: A colleague of mine lost his daughter in an off-campus dorm fire in Ohio and a colleague of his lost his daughter in a different off-campus dorm fire. Between those two off-campus homes, they had 21 or 22 fire smoke alarms, not a single one went off between two houses. They were all ions, eight kids died.


RS: Oh! 


TM: Oh no.


BO: Wow! 


SW: So…


BO: Serious stuff. Keep an eye on it.


SW: This is very serious stuff.


BO: Well, let’s put a wrap on it. I mean, check it out, guys, we’re getting to the fall and it means it’s daylight savings time for a bunch of us in this country, and I guess that’s when you replace your batteries in your smoke alarms, so go check ’em out when you’re replacing your batteries and replace them if they need to be replaced. Thank you, Skip, we appreciate it and we didn’t even get to Code Check, which was another conversation we wanna have, so like we tell every guest, welcome back, ’cause we’ll do episode number two with you at some point here in the future.


BO: So thank you very much for your time, thanks for getting up early to chat with us today, and everybody else, you’ve been listening to Structure Talk, a Structure Tech presentation. My name is Bill Oelrich, as always, alongside Reuben Saltzman and Tessa Murry. See if you’re paying attention, you know I flipped it that time, so…


RS: I noticed. [chuckle]


BO: But thanks for listening. We will catch you next time. And thank you very much, Skip. We appreciate all your expertise. Have a great day, everybody.