Fire Safety Tips: Where to Put Smoke Detectors

man installing smoke detector as a fire safety precaution

Blog written by Guardline.

Every winter, you hear about house fires that at best, destroy homes, and frequently and tragically result in loss of life. Statistics show that house fires are not just confined to winter months and heating malfunctions, but happen every month of the year. In fact, according to the US Fire Administration, over 50% of fires in the US are house fires (as opposed to wildfires), and over 70% of house fires result in a fatality. One question homeowners have about fire safety is this: where to place the smoke detector. 

Kitchen fires account for about 30% of house fires with injuries. Almost 20%  ignite because of carelessness, while electrical malfunctions and open flames account for about 15% of house fires. Over 35% of house fires that cause death or injury fall into the "all other causes" category, which would include heater malfunction. 

Researchers have also found that modern American home furnishings, mostly manufactured from synthetic materials, are much more flammable than natural fibers and materials. 

In 2020, fire loss in the US amounted to over $21.9 billion, 3,500 deaths, and over 15,000 injuries. 

Smoke Detectors are the First and Best Line of Defense

There is a simple and inexpensive fix for most house fires—a smoke detector. Every state in the US, except Kansas, has regulations that require at least one smoke detector in the home, and most require carbon monoxide detectors in conjunction with smoke alarms. Keep reading to learn exactly where to place the smile detectors in your home, and what's just important, where not to place them. 

How Smoke Detectors Work

There are three kinds of smoke alarms for domestic use—photoelectric, ionization, and dual smoke. 

  • Photoelectric Alarms, best for detecting smoky fires, measures changes in light as it hits the sensor. Simply put, smoke blocks the light, which triggers the alarm. 
  • Smoke entering an ionization chamber causes a drop in the electrical current, which activates the alarm. Ionization Detectors are more sensitive to flames. 
  • Dual Smoke Detectors do both—there are both photoelectric and ionization sensors, so both smoky and high flame fires are quickly detected. 

Why have a smoke detector?

A better question would be, why wouldn't you install a life-saving device in your home? 

As mentioned earlier, smoke detectors are required in residential buildings in most states in the US. If common sense for your family's safety and well-being doesn't sway you, how about this—if you don't have the required number of smoke detectors in your home, you're on your own in case of a fire. 

Most homeowner's insurance policies will not cover fire damage if you have neglected to install a smoke detector. You also get a small discount on your premium if you have smoke detectors installed. 

Besides, smoke detectors are unobtrusive and inexpensive—a small price to pay for personal and financial security.  

Smoke Detectors Should Meet Local Building Codes

Check with your county or city building standards department if you're not sure about the smoke detectors in your home. Many municipalities in the US go by the International Building Code (IBC) to set building safety guidelines. The most critical component of the code is the requirement that smoke detectors be connected and wired to the home's electrical or security system. At some point, you'll need to replace the stand-alone battery-operated smoke detectors with an interconnected system—one that notifies the fire department if it senses smoke or a fire. 

Where is the best placement for smoke detectors?

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) recommends at least one unit on every level of your home, especially the attic and including the basement.

Attics in older homes are notorious for being the ignition point for electrical fires; as old wiring frays and gets chewed on, it becomes a tremendous fire hazard. Wood, plastic pipes, and insulation are highly flammable and without a smoke alarm in the attic, your home could be a complete loss before you've even aware of the fire. 

How many smoke detectors do I need?

When it comes to smoke detectors, the more the merrier.  How many depends on the number of bedrooms, hallways, and exterior doors in your home. 

The NFPA suggests one smoke detector in every bedroom and hallway outside the bedrooms. Also, install detectors in any rooms that are in between sleeping areas and exterior doors. In other words, if you have three bedrooms, a hallway, a great room, and an entrance hall, you'd need at least six units—you're effectively creating a smoke detection path from the bedrooms to the outdoors. 

What about smoke detectors in the kitchen?

Smoke detectors are the bane of home cooks—they're so sensitive that burning toast can bring the fire department to your door, unless you can shut the siren off by waving that dishtowel at the unit. Still, kitchens are where 30% of house fires start, so you do need a smoke detector nearby. Try to mount the device at least 10 feet from the stove to minimize false alarms. This could be tricky in a smaller kitchen, but you can go outside the kitchen on the stove side for installation if necessary. 

Where should I install them?

Smoke detectors are designed to mount on the ceiling but can be attached to the wall if the ceiling isn't feasible—such as a cathedral or vaulted design. It may also not be practical to run wires through the ceiling, so a wall mount makes more sense. As long as the unit is placed within 12 inches of the ceiling, it meets the building code. 

Where should a smoke detector NOT be installed?

There is a lot of ceiling space in most houses, so determining where not to install a smoke detector will help you narrow down where they should go. 

Don't install near heat sources like a stove, but steamy bathrooms are also apt to trigger a false alarm. Ten feet is a good rule of thumb for distance. 

Photoelectric sensors should be at least six feet from any heat source, including bathrooms. 

Ionization sensors should be at least 20 feet from a stove or other cooking appliance (air fryers, clown cookers, pressure cookers, etc), and three feet from the bathroom door. These detectors are super sensitive to steam, and nobody wants the fire department running over when you take a steamy shower. 

Avoid installing smoke detectors in any areas where a draft could interfere with their operation—doors, windows, and air ducts are common culprits. 

Don't paint or decorate the devices. Paint or adhesive can interfere with the operation of the sensors. 

To avoid setting off false alarms when you're cooking, measure distance horizontally. Instead of putting the tape measure at the top of the stove and going up, start at the outer edge of the unit and go out. Install the unit above that point. Keep in mind that smoke and heat rise, so you want the unit to the side of the steam stream. 

Final Thoughts

For maximum security and efficiency, set up your smoke detectors so that they are interlinked. This is particularly important when you have an attic or basement since any fires that start in those places can get an unbeatable head start if you don't hear the alarm go off. 

It's also a good idea to incorporate carbon monoxide detectors into your home safety plan. Some smoke detectors also have a CO sensor built-in, and these are critical if you have gas appliances in your home, a garage, or use indoor space heaters. 

Don't forget to keep a fire extinguisher in the kitchen in case of a grease or appliance fire. Guardline keeps an eye on the perimeter of your property, so you can focus on ensuring you're safe from fire and carbon monoxide.

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