Fire Safety Depends on the Type of Smoke Detector

Tom Lange
Written by Tom Lange
Updated December 12, 2015
Bruned out couch from a house fire
It's important to install smoke detectors on all levels of the home. (Photo by Brandon Smith)

Fire safety pros suggest a combination of ionization and photoelectric smoke detectors.

Shopping for a smoke alarm isn't always a simple task.

A quick stroll down the fire safety aisle or Internet search yields choices between ionization and photoelectric smoke detectors. You’ll also find hard-wired and wireless models, and the cost for the different kinds of smoke detectors ranges from $4 to $100 — per alarm.

What do all these words mean, anyway? Is it really worth paying $100 per smoke detector?

According to Judy Comoletti, division manager for public education at the National Fire Protection Association, it’s important to have different types of smoke detectors throughout your home, as they can detect different types of fires. It’s also best to link the smoke detectors in your home, but it doesn’t necessarily mean having them hardwired.

“You don’t know what kind of fire you’re going to have,” Comoletti says. “You want to be covered.”

Ionization vs. photoelectric smoke detectors

Comoletti says it’s important to have both ionization and photoelectric smoke detectors installed in specific places in your home.

Ionization smoke alarms are most effective at detecting fast-moving, flaming fires. Be aware, however, that ionization detectors are prone to false alarms from steam and burnt food, so they’re not ideal in kitchens or bathrooms. In fact, Comoletti says the annoyance causes many people to disconnect their ionization smoke detectors, which is a major fire safety hazard.

Photoelectric smoke alarms detect smoldering, smoky fires that typically burn longer before breaking out, such as those originating behind a wall or in the attic.

The benefits of interconnected smoke detectors

Because you never know where a fire will start, it’s important to have smoke detectors on each level of the home, near the kitchen and in or near every bedroom. It’s also helpful if the smoke detectors connect to each other, Comoletti says.

“For the best protection, interconnected smoke alarms are a great way to go,” she says. “Because if one sounds, they all sound.”

Hard-wired smoke alarms connect to the electrical system and link with other alarms throughout the home. While they offer optimal protection, they’re typically more expensive and require professional installation.

A cheaper, do-it-yourself option is to install wireless smoke detectors that use sensors to sync together, Comoletti says. Most homeowners should be able to connect wireless smoke detectors to one another, and install the smoke alarms themselves. Then, if an alarm in your basement detects smoke, it will prompt all of the smoke detectors in your home to activate, Comoletti says.

“A lot of people don’t know it, but it’s great technology,” she says.

Smoke detector cost

The price for different smoke detectors varies widely, depending on the brand and features. Some smoke alarms, for example, double as carbon monoxide detectors.

A basic, photoelectric or ionization smoke detector usually costs less than $10. You’ll typically pay $20 to $30 for wireless or hard-wired smoke alarm, while alarms with built-in carbon monoxide detectors cost $40 to $50.Smoke alarms costing more than $100 often come with additional features, such as the ability for the user to turn off an alarm with a smartphone.

But don’t let cost stop you from protecting your home from a fire. Many fire departments have smoke alarm installation programs, where they’ll provide smoke detectors for little or no cost and ensure proper installation, Comoletti says.

If your local fire department doesn’t have a smoke alarm installation program, some grant programs can help cover the cost of smoke alarms, she says.

What’s most important is to start thinking about smoke detectors before a fire, not after, Comoletti says.

“It’s usually we read about (a fire) in the newspaper and think, ‘Oh yes, that could happen to me,’” she says.