Why Your Smoke Alarms May Not Go Off During a House Fire

Paige Putnam, journalist

Note: This topic is very important to me, as I recently experienced a significant house fire and our smoke alarms did not go off. 

Take a moment and think to yourself: when was the last time you checked the batteries of the smoke alarms in your home? Did you ever wonder if by some off chance they may not go off if your house was on fire, even with brand new batteries? Believe it or not, this does happen, and more often than you might think. There are actually two different types of smoke detectors, ionization detectors, and photoelectric detectors. Ionization smoke detectors detect particles of fast-paced open flame fires and photoelectric detectors detect smoke particles from fires that smolder for a long period of time before turning into open flames. Depending on where in a house a fire starts, how fast it spreads, and the type of fire it is, it could take up to hours to see or smell smoke. If smoke alarms do go off, individuals will often see or smell smoke before they hear the alarm. The type of fire alarm and its location in a house also affects the likelihood of whether it will go off or not.

Most fire alarms should be able to detect any type of fire or smoke regardless of whether they are ionization or photoelectric detectors, however, this does not always happen. Additionally, both types of alarms require large amounts of smoke to go off. It is important to be aware of the two different types of smoke detectors and it is worthwhile to invest in both types to provide maximum safety and security. If you don’t know what type of smoke alarm is in your home, it is likely an ionization detector, as these are the most common. This is why if a home experiences a smoldering fire, it is very possible that the ionization alarm will not go off. Luckily, there is an alarm known as a dual-action smoke alarm, which uses both ionization and photoelectric technology to alert you to any fire that may be taking place in your home. Experts recommend having at least one smoke alarm on each floor of your home and one in each room where people sleep.  Another detail about house fires that is unfortunately not common knowledge is that attics are one of the most common places in homes in which fires start. About 10,000 attic fires take place annually in the United States alone and they are often caused by the overwhelming of electrical circuits in a home. Despite the fact that many people would not even think to put a smoke alarm in their attic, it’s an important place for one. Fires that start in attics often spread slowly through insulation and smolder for long periods of time before becoming noticeable, so a photoelectric or dual-action smoke detector would be a great option for an attic. Many newer smoke detectors can signal the other smoke detectors in a home to go off as well, so no matter where a fire may begin, the linked alarms should make you aware. Whether you check your alarm monthly or every 10 years, now may be a good time to consider whether the alarm you’re checking is even worth checking. Get out there and invest in some fire safety equipment!

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