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Smoke Alarms

The BasicsSmoke alarm

Toxic smoke produced in a house fire kills. Flames are an obvious danger however in most cases, flames cause structural damage, but smoke will be the primary cause of death. New building materials contain increased levels of toxins and chemicals which can smolder for extended periods of time creating large amounts of smoke before producing flames.

If a fire was to start in your home while you are sleeping you could suffer smoke inhalation before you will even know what is happening. The combination of toxic smoke and gases will reduce oxygen levels in your home making it extremely difficult to wake up and get out, or will make it impossible to wake up at all. It is essential to install and maintain working smoke alarms on every level of your home and outside of all sleeping areas.

The speed of smoke production and flame spread in houses today could give you less than 2 minutes to wake up and get outside your home. Waking up is depending on your smoke alarms operating.

It's the Law

Installation of smoke alarms is extremely important. The law states that working smoke alarms must be installed on every level of your home and outside of all sleeping areas. This may include your cottage, camp, cabin, RV, boat, trailer, etc.

So is it a Smoke Alarm or a Smoke Detector?

A Smoke Alarm is an all-in-one, self contained device including a detector and alert system. The detector portion of the Smoke Alarm detects smoke, gas and particles produced by a fire and activate an audible or visual alarm.

A Smoke Detector is a sensory device only and does not contain a built in audible alert system. A smoke detector senses smoke and sends a signal through a building's fire alarm system to an audible device (bells, horns, strobes, sirens, etc.) Smoke detectors can not alert people of fire unless they are connected to a fire alarm system containing the audible devices.

The Technology

There are two types of technologies available in regards to detection devices within smoke alarms. Most smoke alarms only contain one type of detection however some contain both. Depending on the installation location and surroundings one type of technology maybe more effective than the other.

  • Ionization smoke alarms activate more effectively with the presence of a fast, flaming fire producing minimal visible smoke.
  • Photoelectric smoke alarms are more responsive to smoldering or dense smoke producing fires.

Smoke alarms are designed to be operated by battery power or by alternating current electrical supply (110v). Some electrically operated smoke alarms are provided with a battery back up supply that needs to be changed and kept charged to operate properly. When a smoke alarm is required to be replaced make sure that you are replacing the alarm with an equivalent. An electrically supplied smoke alarm cannot be replaced by a battery powered smoke alarm.

When purchasing smoke alarms make sure that they are listed by a standards organization. For example Underwriters Laboratories of Canada (ULC) or Underwriters Laboratories Incorporated (cUL).

Nuisance Alarms

As soon as a new smoke alarm is purchased the manufacturer's instructions should be read and understood. These instructions contain many important details in regards to safe operation and maintenance of the smoke alarm. Some smoke alarms only operate on specific makes of batteries, have multiple alerts that can sound, and some have very specific cleaning instructions. Without reading the manufacturer's instructions it is impossible to understand the meaning of important alert tones being emitted.

In some situations you may have a smoke alarm that is going off where there is no fire, which we call a false alarm. Common examples of this are in locations near a bathroom door where hot steam from the shower will set it off, or in the hallway leading to the kitchen where cooking will set it off.

Each situation may be different but there are many options available to limit false alarm activation. One option may be to consult that manufacturer's instructions and look for an option of moving the smoke alarm to a more effective location.

Other options may be to purchase a smoke alarm utilizing a different technology, for example, replace an ionization alarm with a photo electric. Make sure that if you replace a smoke alarm, don't replace an electrically powered unit with a battery powered unit or provide a reduced level of protection.

WARNING - False alarms cause complacency. If you have a smoke alarm going off regularly and no fire condition exists, look at your options and correct the problem as soon as possible.

WARNING - If your smoke alarm goes off NEVER assume that it is a false alarm. Always identify any potential smoke sources and be sure that a safe condition exists.


Manufacturers recommendations should be followed regarding testing and replacement of smoke alarms however generally speaking a smoke alarm older than ten years of age should be replaced with a new smoke alarm.

Testing your smoke alarm regularly will help to ensure that your family is kept safe from smoke and fire.  Testing is simple quick and simple, mark it on the calendar and designate a "home tester" within your family.  Usually a push of the "test" button is all it takes!

Replace your batteries at least once per year, most people replace their batteries at the same time they adjust their clocks in the spring and fall.  Smoke Alarms connected to an electrical power source may also have batteries as back-up power that needs to be replaced and checked as well.

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Install Smoke Alarms - It's the Law