For this episode, the gang digs into the details of smoke alarm safety, starting with a discussion between the differences between smoke alarms and smoke detectors. That turns into a discussion of exactly which smoke alarm everyone should have, and why most smoke alarms in people’s homes will probably not protect them in a fire.
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.
Reuben Saltzman: It seems like you should just be able to go to the store and get a smoke alarm and be done with it, but it’s really tough to figure out what you want. You go there, it’s gonna be like an eight-foot wide bay by 8 feet tall…
Tessa Murry: So many options.
RS: And yeah, what the heck are you supposed to pick out?
Bill Oelrich: Welcome everybody. You’re listening to Structure Talk, a Structure Tech presentation. My name is Bill Oelrich, alongside my co-host Tessa Murry, and Reuben Saltzman. And on today’s podcast, we’re gonna talk about some safety systems in your home, and just clear the air about a few things. And we’re gonna jump into this right away talking about smoke detectors.
RS: What? Did you say smoke detector? Hold on.
BO: Yes, I said smoke detectors.
RS: No, you didn’t.
BO: Yeah, I did.
TM: I just saw the fire in Reuben’s eyes.
RS: Uh oh. Yeah, we’re gonna have to restart this whole show, Bill. No, okay, go on.
BO: Well, we’re gonna talk about smoke detectors and carbon monoxide alarms and various things.
TM: You mean CO2 detectors? [chuckle]
RS: Alright. Now, we’re just being silly.
BO: What are they? Carbon dioxide alarms?
RS: I’m about to walk out of here, Bill.
TM: Pushing every button Reuben has right now.
RS: Yeah, it’s like, you ever watched that… There’s a YouTube video, it’s like make dad mad video. It’s like people putting in batteries backwards in their appliances and all the stuff that just makes your skin crawl. Yeah, it’s smoke alarm, Bill. It’s a smoke alarm. Now, a detector is an old word. A lot of people still say smoke detector, but the detector really only refers to a device that detects smoke. When you say smoke alarm, it’s a device that has a detector built in, and it also has an alarming device. Now, when you have a monitored system in a commercial building, they will have remote smoke detectors and then they will have sirens that go off if it detects smoke. And maybe it’ll even contact the fire department. Who knows? But so…
BO: That may have happened once in my youth while living in a downtown apartment. We won’t go there.
TM: That’s a different podcast.
BO: 2 AM when the door was being pounded on by some…
RS: Oh no.
BO: Anyway, I digress.
RS: So, yeah, we’re talking smoke alarms. And you got the other part right. CO alarm or carbon monoxide. And Tessa, you’re giving me a hard time, ’cause we don’t tolerate CO2 alarms.
TM: Yeah, we hear that a lot.
RS: Yeah, it’s usually when parents come to the inspection…
TM: Well, a lot of real estate agents say CO2 detectors, too.
RS: Sure, it’s CO, carbon monoxide. Mono, one, mono.
BO: Okay, so let’s dive into these smoke detectors. Oh, God, I forgot already.
TM: We should put a shock collar on Bill every time he says smoke detector.
BO: Okay, so what are we dealing with? What’s on the shelf when we go to the big box store to protect our loved ones from a catastrophic event in their home at night?
RS: It seems like you should just be able to go to the store and get a smoke alarm and be done with it, but it’s really tough to figure out what you want. You go there, it’s gonna be like an eight-foot wide bay, by eight feet tall.
TM: So many options.
RS: And yeah, what the heck are you supposed to pick out? And they’re all just a little bit different.
BO: The most expensive one. Then you’ll be safe for sure.
RS: Well, that would be nice…
RS: But not always. And let’s start with the basics. Number one, there’s two different types of smoke alarms.
TM: Ionization and photoelectric.
RS: That’s right. Now, the ionization ones, the benefit to those is they go off a lot faster if you have a flaming fire. If you actually have something that’s burning and you’ve got big flames, it will go off like 30 seconds faster. So it’s not a big difference, but that is where they perform better.
TM: I didn’t realize it was 30 seconds faster.
RS: Well, it depends on the type of fire. And I’m just kind of giving an average, but it’s not much. And they say if it’s a fast flaming fire every second counts. So they kinda make a big deal out of these 30 seconds.
TM: Okay. Yeah. Sure.
RS: But the thing where I don’t think this matters all that much, when you have a big fast flaming fire, if you’re gonna be alerted by your smoke alarm, this is where you don’t have a lot of smoke leading up to the fire, it just flashes over, it’s usually gonna be something that happens in the kitchen. It’s usually going to be an attended fire, where you know about it. The smoke alarm isn’t telling you you got a fire. You’re already aware. So I, personally, I don’t think that’s a huge benefit. Now, with photoelectric smoke alarms, those go off a lot faster when you have a slow smouldering fire. That’s the type where if you got a smoker in the home, and they leave a cigarette burning in bed or something like that, or maybe a space heater tips over, something like that. That’s gonna be the slow smouldering kind.
TM: Oh, sorry to interrupt, but I was gonna say a lot of houses today, with all the furniture and the carpets and just the materials we use in new construction, it’ll smoulder for a long time first. You don’t have those big flames.
RS: They’ll generate a lot more smoke, yep. And then when they do erupt into flames, they burn a lot faster too.
BO: Does anybody smoke in their house anymore?
RS: I sure hope not, but you know what? People do. We go into those homes, and you know what’s funny? You walk up to those homes, you can smell it outside the house. You ever notice that?
BO: Yes, I’m sorry to digress. But back in the day when I did do home inspections, there was a guy who was asking me is, “We really love this house, we love this location. But there was a heavy smoker in the house. How do I get the smell out?”
TM: Good luck.
RS: I can tell you from personal experience.
TM: Can you?
RS: Oh, yeah. I bought a home like that back in 2004. Heavy smokers, rolled his own cigarettes. And he smoked inside the house and those walls were yellow. They used to be white, they were yellow. And everything got moved out, and we got a crew in there. Me, my parents, my wife, a bunch of friends. And we got five gallon buckets of water and TSP or something like TSP. I know you’re not supposed to use TSP anymore. It was a different time. And we would scrub these walls down with sponges, and as you’d pull your sponge down, and it just changed the color instantly.
RS: And you’d put the sponge in the water, and you’d wring it out, and the water would just turn yellow, like disgusting. And you have to…
TM: So you were able to save the dry wall? You didn’t have to…
RS: Oh yeah. Oh yeah. It probably had like 30 layers of lead paint underneath all of this. And so all we did…
TM: Wow. Washed everything.
RS: Was we cleaned it really well, washed down all the surfaces, painted with two layers of KILZ.
RS: And then painted with whatever color paint on the wall.
TM: What about the floor?
RS: Before we moved in, we had ’em all sanded down and refinished, and by the time we were done, there was nothing. There was no smelly surface.
TM: And the ductwork, you probably had ductwork all cleaned out and…
RS: I had the ductwork cleaned. Yeah.
BO: I wonder which is harder, to remediate a smoker’s house or a house that had a…
TM: A fire?
BO: Intense smoky fire inside of it.
RS: I’m gonna guess a fire.
TM: I would guess that too, but I don’t know.
RS: I don’t know for certain, but damage restoration company would certainly know.
TM: Yeah. We should have…
BO: In seven minutes, we got through one, we went through…
RS: We’re not even done. We haven’t even talked about the benefits of photoelectric.
TM: Yeah, we gotta talk about photoelectric smoke alarms.
BO: You didn’t even explain what photoelectric is.
RS: You’re right. Oh man.
TM: We got on a tangent. [laughter]
BO: So Reuben, fill us in on what photoelectric smoke alarm is.
RS: So photoelectric responds to slow, smouldering fires much faster, and when I say much faster, I’m talking like 15 to 20 minutes faster.
BO: That’s statistically significant.
RS: This is huge.
TM: It’s life or death.
RS: This is life or death, yeah. And I’ve got these videos on our website, they do these tests, fire departments will put a soldering iron on a couch and they’ll let this room fill with smoke, and it gets so smoky you can’t even see across the room. And the one thing, there’s a video that Tessa and I always show at these classes we teach, and the one thing that’s not included in that video is what happens with the carbon monoxide levels. This room is filling with carbon monoxide to a really dangerous level. People get so sleepy from that, even when the smoke alarms eventually do go off, set aside the fact that the room is filled with smoke, you’re disoriented, you can’t find squat. On top of that, that room is filled with carbon monoxide.
RS: Nobody’s even waking up when that smoke alarm eventually goes off, and you’re thinking, “Well, it goes off every time I make toast, so I know it’s ultra sensitive, and I’m gonna be fine.” The problem is that that is responding to a flaming type of signature that burnt toast gives off, or burnt foods give off, they don’t go off when you have a slow, smouldering fire. And so, just about every time, when you hear about somebody dying in a fire, and they say they had working smoke alarms, it’s because they had ionization alarms. That’s what leads to deaths.
BO: Okay, so we have photoelectric.
BO: What’s the mechanism? How does it work? How is it different than the ionization?
RS: Well, a photoelectric sensor senses the big smoke cells. It actually has a light that passes through this chamber, and if the light gets obstructed by smoke, that’s when it sets off the alarm, it needs to see that. And so I guess the one downside of these is that they do need to be periodically vacuumed. You gotta take a wet-dry vac or something and put the nozzle up to the smoke alarm and kinda suck dust off the sensor, ’cause if you do get a bunch of dust in there you’ll get nuisance alarms. And I think they’re programmed to only go off at 3 AM, when everybody’s sleeping.
TM: Or after you shower, if you’ve got one in the hallway, and a steamy shower, no fan, and… Yeah.
BO: So every day, this happens in our house, because my wife takes a shower, and then she lights incense at the altar, and sometimes we leave the fan on, and sometimes not, but whenever the bath fan’s not left on, there’s enough draw on her, cause the furnace fan’s running all the time, it draws it back into the nearest bedroom. We only have 14 smoke alarms up there, next know all of these… The bedroom, but it goes off every night. It’s like clockwork.
BO: I know they work.
TM: Yeah, right? Yeah.
RS: Bottom line is, there’s a huge difference between these two types of smoke alarms, and we’re a huge advocate of photoelectric. We’ve mentioned this during every home inspection we do, even if we don’t actually talk about it on site, we check the type of smoke alarm people have.
TM: And we put that recommendation in our report.
BO: So if somebody wanted to go and look at their device right now and understand what it is, what’s the shortcut to knowing what you have?
TM: Most smoke alarms will say right on the back, so you can twist it, pull it off, and you can look at the underside of it, and it’ll say “ionization” on it, or if you see the word “radioactive” on it anywhere on the back, that is ionization as well. If it’s photoelectric, a lot of times the photoelectric ones say it right on the side, and you don’t even have to pull it down, you can see the word “photoelectric.”
RS: Yeah, yeah. Or you’ll see an embossed P on the underside of it, the side that you can see will have an embossed P on there.
BO: The face of it.
TM: I would say, though, it’s pretty safe to say, if you haven’t… If you yourself haven’t sought out and purchased a photoelectric smoke alarm, it’s probably ionization in your house.
RS: I couldn’t have said it any better, Tess. That’s exactly right.
TM: Even in new construction houses.
RS: Yes, yes.
TM: That’s what they put in.
BO: Wait a second.
RS: That’s worth repeating.
TM: Even in new construction houses, they are typically ionization smoke alarms. They don’t have photoelectric.
BO: You don’t get the Cadillac on new construction?
RS: I’ll tell you…
RS: You say typically, Tess…
TM: All the time.
RS: I have never, not once, found a photoelectric smoke alarm in new construction.
TM: I haven’t either.
RS: It doesn’t exist.
TM: And why is that?
RS: It’s because electricians buy smoke alarms by the pallet, ’cause they’re doing new construction homes, and ionization alarms cost like 5 bucks or less a piece and when you’re buying them by their thousands it’s a bill deal.
BO: So that’s not the builders decision, that’s the electricians decision probably?
TM: The builder could specify if they wanted, but the problem is most people don’t even know that there’s a difference.
RS: Nobody knows, nobody cares.
TM: They don’t know what photoelectric is, they don’t know ionization is, and they don’t care. And so they’re just looking for the cheapest one available.
BO: Okay, so we’re gonna wrap this segment but I have one quick question. You have a brand new house, you’ve got a brand new ionization it’s hard-wired because they’re all hard-wired now, you pop that little bad boy off, can you just click in a new photoelectric and put it right in there and it’s just a 30 second DIY job?
RS: That’s exactly what it is. You gotta get the same type. There’s two brands that kinda dominate the market, you’re gonna have First Alert and Kidde, and you get the same one it’s gonna have the same Quick Connect fitting, you pop it right back in, that’s all there is to it. It’s a really simple job.
TM: Is that how you say it, Kidde?
RS: Kidde, not “Kiddy”. I said “Kiddy” for a long time.
TM: I always thought it was “Kiddy”.
RS: Yeah, I always said too.
BO: Or just “Kid”.
RS: I heard it on their website, I was watching one of the videos and they call themselves Kidde.
TM: Kidde, alright.
BO: And nobody can see Reuben giving me the high five that I actually got it right but I did…
RS: You’re the best, Bill.
BO: I know all the difference between an alarm and a detector. So let’s get back to this, so how often are we replacing these devices? Tell me more, tell me more.
TM: Every 10 years, the manufacturer states. Smoke alarms every 10 years.
BO: Is that standard across the board?
TM: Yeah, I think that’s been standard, every 10 years replacement.
RS: Yeah, yeah. That’s the standard.
BO: Has it always been 10 years?
RS: I don’t know any time it hasn’t, I’m gonna say yes, I’ll go with yes.
TM: Yeah. I don’t either.
BO: So can we until we have heard yes here we’re just gonna follow the manufacturer’s recommendations for replacement, correct?
RS: Well, and it’s 10 years.
RS: I mean, you’re saying “Has it always been 10 years?”, I don’t know what it was 40 years ago, maybe it wasn’t.
BO: But 10 years ago it was 10 years?
RS: Yes, yes, yes it was.
BO: Okay, so then every 10 years.
TM: Yeah, and if you got one on your ceiling that’s yellow, kind of mustardy color, chances are it’s over 10 years old. It’s tired.
BO: We touch the plastic and it breaks.
RS: Yeah, that’s what we call tell. Yeah, that’s how you know, if it’s yellow, it’s more than 10 years old. And if you wanna know for sure, like Tessa said before, you give it that a little twist, you look at the back side, it’s gonna have a date code on there. If it doesn’t have a date code it’s definitely more than 10 years old.
TM: It’s old, yeah.
RS: They’ve been doing date codes for like at least the last 15 years.
TM: 15 years. Even longer.
RS: Probably so, yeah.
BO: Okay, so let’s talk about some of the new connectivity of these devices. There’s new codes about these and I have an old house, everybody knows you have an old house, I’ve only said it 85 times, but how do I connect a bunch of them, I’m not gonna run a new wire and is…
RS: Oh, sure. And you’re talking about connecting them. They don’t have to be hard-wired, it’s fine to have battery-operated smoke alarms. The current standard, if you’re building a new home, they’re gonna be hard-wired with a battery backup. But on old homes it’s perfectly fine to just have single station, battery-operated smoke alarms, and side note on that topic, the current standard of safety is a smoke alarm in every room, ideally installed on the ceiling right in the middle of the room. Next best place wold be on the ceiling away from the middle, but somewhere on the ceiling, that’s ideal. And then a smoke alarm in a common area on every level. So that’s where you wanna have them, if you don’t have them in these places get some.
BO: Okay, so point of clarification, you just said every room.
TM: Yeah. You did.
RS: Oh sorry, I meant to say sleeping room, my apologies.
TM: Okay, I thought I was hearing things, every sleeping room.
BO: Okay, you don’t need 27 smoke alarms in a really nice house.
RS: Thank you, I’m glad you picked that up.
RS: Yeah, every sleeping room and one on a common area on every level. So that’s where they should be located and the current standard is they gotta be hard-wired but old house if you can’t do that, it’s fine. But if you really wanna go all out and make it as safe as possible you can get wirelessly interconnected smoke alarms, so that if you’ve got a big house and you’ve got one going off down in the basement you sleep up on the second floor then you wanna know about this fire going on down there and you’re a heavy sleeper, you get them interconnected, so if one goes off in the basement they all go off.
BO: It’s wirelessly connected, do you have to set up a wireless network for that?
RS: Well, yeah, it’s not gonna be connected to your WiFi. I’m sure there probably are some that are connected to WiFi but the smoke alarms just connect to each other. I think I’ll be wrong about this, but I think First Alert’s version of that is called Onelink, that’s the brand of their type of smoke alarm where they wirelessly interconnect.
RS: I installed them in my mother-in-law’s home. She’s got an older home, I wanted to make sure she had the best protection there and, you know, one year for Christmas, awesome Christmas present. I got her photoelectric smoke alarms which were wirelessly connected and I put those in at her house.
BO: You’re so practical.
TM: She’s so lucky to have a son-in-law like you.
RS: Yeah, super exciting gift.
TM: Did she understand the importance of that?
RS: Yeah, she got it, she got it, she reads my blog.
TM: Did you tell her about photoelectric? Okay, she reads your blog. [chuckle]
RS: Oh, yeah, she reads the blog, oh, she’s a big fan, yeah. That’s Jan, she’s awesome.
BO: Thanks honey.
TM: I’ve always wanted a bunch of photo electric interconnected smoke alarms. [laughter]
RS: Yeah, “Just what I’ve always dreamed about.” But it’s like, “No, keeping families safe. You might not want it but I care about you, I want this”.
TM: Keeping family members alive, one person at a time.
RS: That’s right.
BO: Okay, so let’s move on to carbon monoxide alarms. I have two questions about carbon monoxide alarms. Where do they have to be located? How often do you change them? That’s already two, so now I have three. And are you truly protected with a carbon monoxide alarm? Like, is it gonna tell you if there’s… What levels of carbon monoxide are in your home?
RS: Alright, I’ll tell you, the basic requirement is you’re supposed to have CO alarms within 10 feet of every sleeping room, that is the Minnesota statute. It was a statute up until 2015 and then it became a rule, which meant building officials had the right to enforce this. So, it is a rule now, you need a CO alarm within 10 feet of every sleeping room. And what was your other one? How often do you replace it? It depends. Now, it always used to be either five or seven years, depending on the manufacturer. But then when they started making all these CO alarms that were CO and smoke alarm combination devices, people like me, I started telling people, “Don’t buy those devices because now you gotta replace it after maybe five years or after seven years, whereas smoke alarms are good for 10 years, so this is just stupid. Don’t buy them.” Well then, the manufacturers magically increased the shelf life on these to 10 years. So now all the manufacturers say, “CO alarms? They’re good for 10 years”.
BO: So, you strike me as the person who would actually dig into that a little bit and understand, did they do more testing to make sure that alarm that was in there was different than the five-year alarm?
RS: I never dug into it but you know what I think. [laughter] I think that they crossed off five and wrote 10. I think that’s as much as went into it as anything, I think it was just a change.
TM: Is it the sensor that actually goes bad on it then, on those CO alarms, I mean?
RS: I think that’s the concern. The sensor won’t be as sensitive…
TM: ‘Cause I see so many CO alarms that are really old when I do a home inspections.
RS: Yes, like 30-years-old. Yeah.
TM: Oh yeah, yeah, older than me sometimes. Plugged into a wall and there at the nighthawk.
RS: That doesn’t mean much, Tess.
TM: Over 30 years old. The Nighthawks, they’re still there, and they’re plugged in but they’re not good, they’re not good anymore, you’re saying?
RS: No, no, no. Those need to be replaced.
BO: Our home had a recent meltdown with one that expired and it just… It decided to let us know that, until it was in 48 pieces on the ground, in my garage, it wasn’t gonna stop making a noise.
TM: How old was it?
BO: 10 years, it was…
TM: And it went out with a bang. [chuckle]
BO: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Okay, so tell me about the levels that they’re picking up on.
TM: If you have a CO alarm and it goes off, it’s a life-threatening issue. Those alarms are meant to go off to tell you to get out of the house and to save your life. And I can’t remember exactly what levels, usually they’ll only go off if it’s what over 50 parts per million?
RS: I’m sure, it’s definitely over 50.
TM: Over 50 parts per million, but for a very long period of time and the higher that level gets in your house, the shorter amount of time it takes for it to go off. So it’ll go off immediately if you have over what, like hundreds of parts per million in your house.
RS: Yeah, like if you’re like 800 parts per million, it’s gotta go off within 30 seconds or something like that. We don’t have the standards memorized.
BO: Okay, so it’s gotta be at that elevation for that length of time. That’s a complicated device, actually.
TM: It is. The point is though, you can have low levels of carbon monoxide or even moderate levels in my opinion.
RS: Yeah, enough to make you feel kind of sick. All the time.
TM: Yeah, enough to give you flu symptoms. Yeah, it could give you a headache, it can make you tired, feel ill, nausea, all those things and your CO alarm will never go off.
BO: So is there another device you can put in that would detect much lower levels?
TM: Yeah there are, there are low level CO alarms. And actually, one of the guys on our team, he bought a bunch of them ’cause he had, was it a family member who had carbon monoxide poisoning from low levels in their house, they finally figured out what it was. And so he bought a bunch of these and asked if anyone on the team wanted some and I was like, “Yes, please.” I actually, I have a water heater that is in my bedroom-bathroom area in our condo, and so I obviously paranoid that my water heater is gonna back draft and I’m gonna die while I’m sleeping. [chuckle]
BO: You, the building scientist, paranoid about a failure in one of your home systems?
TM: Yeah. Oh man, I can go on and on with all the things wrong in my condo but yeah, so I have one installed in my bedroom. That’s monitoring for low levels of carbon monoxide.
RS: Yeah and I’ve got one too. I think just about everybody at Structure Tech owns one of these, a low-level CO detector, it’s called.
BO: Okay, so that’s a different device, it’s probably a little more expensive, I would…
RS: Yeah, a little about a 100 bucks each, something like that.
TM: Yeah. I think we got a deal on them because Dustin bought them in a big pack. So I think they’re a little bit more expensive probably if you want…
RS: Yeah, we ordered like 20 of them from the manufacturer. I think at 20, he got a good quantity break on them.
TM: Yeah, so over 100 bucks probably.
BO: Well, we’re getting close to the end here, but is there any other safety device you would recommend that people throw in their home?
TM: Just turn on your kitchen hood vents when you’re cooking over your gas stove.
RS: Yeah, that’s good advice.
TM: Hopefully you have a vent that vents to the outside and if you don’t open a window…
BO: Interesting, note.
TM: If you’re baking too.
BO: Okay, so five hours with the turkey in the oven is a…
TM: That’s why people get sleepy, carbon monoxide. Where does your stove vent to?
TM: Into your face, into your face. [chuckle]
RS: Yeah, lung filtered.
TM: It’s a combustion appliance that vents the inside of your house.
BO: Very interesting news. I had no idea. I am here with a puzzled look on my face. I didn’t, I really didn’t even think about it.
TM: Well, and most people don’t think about it. And it’s not… You are not required by code to have a kitchen hood vent that vents to the outside when you have a gas range.
RS: Yeah, so Tess when you say, “Turn on your kitchen fan.” that’s with an asterisk.
TM: If you have one.
RS: If you have one that vents to the outdoors, doesn’t just re-circulate.
TM: The outside. Most people don’t, I would say. And it’s surprising even new construction houses, nice ones, they’ll just have a recirculating vent hood on the microwave or something else.
RS: Yeah, we talk to a lot of our clients who hire us for the new construction inspections. They’ll say, “Yeah, we had to pay extra to have the builder put this vent into the outside.”
TM: Oh yeah, usually it’s at least a 1,000 extra, to do that.
BO: There you go, that’s the tip of the day and you probably wanna know to have that duct work put it before they drywall went up. But wow, you’ve been listening to Structure Talk, a Structure Tech presentation. Thanks everybody for listening.