Fire Safety – Smoke Alarms and Carbon Monoxide Detectors

Smoke alarms are probably the first thing that we think of since fire is the most likely event to cause the physical loss of a home. Whether the home is an apartment, a townhouse, or a single-family home, having effective smoke detectors in or near the kitchen, and both upstairs and downstairs in the case of a multi-level home is really important. In searching for the best smoke alarms and top-rated smoke alarms it is important to understand that there are different types that best suit different situations. Along with installing smoke detectors, one should also consider installing carbon monoxide detectors. carbon monoxide detectors are especially important in homes with basements.

The table below is from the 2019 report published by the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) which collects data from a variety of sources to provide information and analyses on the status and scope of the fire problem in the United States. One can see that more than half of all residential building fires in 2018 were caused by cooking fires, the vast majority of which were fires that started in the kitchen. Many of those almost 200,000 fires caused by cooking might have been quelled before becoming serious, structure threatening fires if the homes had effective smoke detectors.

Besides there being no smoke detectors installed in many homes, one of the biggest reasons that installed smoke detectors are not functioning properly is that the batteries they rely on have expired and have not been replaced. (Click on the chart for more information from USFA.)

Along with smoke detectors, residential homes should also have carbon monoxide detectors. Separate smoke detector units and carbon monoxide detector units can be installed, or combination smoke alarm carbon monoxide detector units can be installed.



A good, basic guide is a minimum of one Smoke Detector, one CO Detector, and a fire extinguisher on every floor, with a Smoke Detector and a CO Detector in every bedroom, and a Smoke Detector, a CO Detector and fire extinguisher in the kitchen and in the garage.


Smoke Detector or Smoke Alarm? CO Detector or CO Alarm?

The terms Smoke Detector and Smoke Alarm, and also CO Detector and CO Alarm essentially mean the same thing. Their purpose is to detect and issue an alarm, so technically one should perhaps always refer to them as ‘Detector/Alarm’ units, but either shortened term will generally be understood. An alarm might be an audible, sound-only alarm or, in higher functionality devices, might be audible sound and also a ‘digital’ alarm capability for connection to a security system.

Researching and selecting the combo units can be time-consuming. The same goes if you already have either a smoke alarm or carbon monoxide detector installed and just need to add or replace the other, searching out the best unit to complement what you already have – or perhaps making the choice between adding or replacing what you already have with a combination smoke alarm carbon monoxide alarm unit – can also be challenging. One good source of information that is probably worth the effort reviewing is Consumer Reports. You will also find some pointers that can help you make the best choice as you read through this web page.

For free, you can learn from the Consumer Reports web site ( that both Carbon Monoxide Detectors and Smoke Detectors are protective only when installed correctly and if their batteries are replaced annually. They state that the best Carbon Monoxide Detectors and top-rated Smoke Detectors use dual sensors, can be interconnected, and have a hush button. You can also see the model numbers of the top twelve Carbon Monoxide Detector models listed on the free access page. At the time of this article being developed, the top 12 came from four manufacturers – nine of which were models from just two of the four. The manufacturers with units in the CR top 12 (listed alphabetically) were First Alert (4), Foho (1), Go Change (1), Kidde (5), and NetBoat (1). However, in order to gain access to the full information on each of these and others, you have to become a Consumer Reports (CR) member; $39 per year (06/2020), which is not too bad for having good advice on hand – well, online – for research on many different types of consumer products.

For those who have a community responsibility, the National Fire Protection offers a free downloadable PDF guide for ‘Planning & Implementing a Successful Smoke Alarm Installation Program’. (Click on the highlighted link to download the file.)

A suggestion for a low cost, basic Carbon Monoxide Detector would be the KN-COB-B-LP Nighthawk Carbon Monoxide Alarm by Kidde which is priced at around $25 and available from Amazon. Some of the top-end models recommended by CR are priced at $85 or more, but they do, of course, have more features – which your home may require.

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A complementary, low cost, basic Smoke Detector companion to a Carbon Monoxide Detector/Alarm would be battery operated Fire Alarms/Smoke Detectors with Photoelectric Sensor and Silence Button. Not only are they easily wall- or ceiling-mounted, take one of these with you when you travel – your own personal Portable Smoke Alarm.

Tip: Purchasing multiple unit packs is a good way of getting the best price per unit.

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The Best Smoke Detector/Alarm and The Best Carbon Monoxide Detector/Alarm

So, ‘What is the best Smoke Detector/Alarm?’ Well, the answer, as so often is the case is, “It depends”. The same applies to the question, ‘What is the best Carbon Monoxide Detector/Alarm ?’

Basic will be the most affordable, but wired-in models that are connected to the home’s electricity system avoid the need for checking and changing batteries. There is a third option that is worth considering – Sealed-in Lithium Battery Power Supply models which do not require battery replacement over the 10-year life of the unit.

Ionization and Photoelectric?

There are two types of smoke detectors – ionization and photoelectric. An ionization smoke alarm is generally more responsive to flaming fires, and a photoelectric smoke alarm is generally more responsive to smoldering fires. Smoke Alarms in kitchens should always be the photoelectric type since smoke usually occurs before flames in cooking incidents. One can install either or both types of alarms – determined by location – or dual sensor smoke alarms (known as combination ionization-photoelectric alarms) can be installed for maximum assurance.

‘Wired Smoke Detectors’ and ‘Wired Carbon Monoxide Detectors’

Wired-in models are usually considered best for high ceilings that require the Smoke Detector to be located at a height that requires one to climb a tall ladder in order to check they are operating properly and, when necessary, replace the batteries. Some people prefer wired in units simply so that they don’t have the concern of checking the batteries to see they are operating properly and, of course, wired in units have the potential to avoid having to change the batteries. Some wired smoke detectors have batteries to provide battery backup. One such, choice wired smoke alarm which would qualify as a ‘basic functionality, affordable unit’ is the First Alert BRK 9120B-3 Smoke Alarm. Remember that a ‘wired unit’ requires an electrician (i.e. a person familiar with installing electrical equipment in the home) to install it.

Smoke and Carbon Monoxide Alarm Connections To Security Systems

If you are considering a Home Security System, it makes sense to choose Smoke Alarms and Carbon Monoxide Detectors that have digital alarm capability and that are connection-compatible with the Home Security System. For example, in order to connect a 2-wire smoke detector/alarm to a security system, you need to install wiring from the alarm system to connect the positive and negative zone terminals of the alarm system to the corresponding positive and negative terminals on the smoke alarm. A complication that may require professional installation help is that most Security Systems require a resistor to be installed in the smoke detector to provide supervision of the zone wiring. That information will be provided in the installation and instruction manual for your security system.

Smoke Detector Alarms / Carbon Monoxide Detector Combo Units

You generally don’t need to have carbon monoxide detector units in as many places in the home as you need Smoke Detector/Alarm units – but you could have if you choose to.

The Combination Smoke Detector Alarms / Carbon Monoxide Detector units mean just one device instead of two side-by-side or one-above-the-other taking up unnecessary wall space. The ‘Combo’ unit – such as the one shown here – can also save cost compared to two separate units.

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A useful resource for guidance for ensuring that Smoke Detectors/Alarms are installed correctly and safely is information posted on the website of the National Fire Protection Association – Public Education page which you can reach by clicking on the highlighted link above.

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