Home Improvement

The Best Smoke Detectors for Your Home and the Worst

The Best Smoke Detector for a Home, and the Worst: Which Do You Have?

First the good news: After decades of public education by firefighters and other community groups, Americans have finally gotten the memo that smoke detectors are a good thing. According to the U.S. Fire Administration, 96% of homes in the U.S. have at least one smoke detector to alert residents to a fire on the premises. Now the bad news: There are actually two types of smoke detectors, and the most popular one is actually the less effective. So which one’s the best smoke detector for your home? Here are the facts on these two main types of smoke detectors—ionization and photoelectric—and how you can use them to keep your home safe.

Ionization smoke detector

Ionization alarms use a small bit of radioactive material to detect the incinerated particles that make up smoke. They’re also the most common—the National Fire Protection Association found that 90% of all the smoke detectors in the U.S. are this type.

The problem? Ionization smoke detectors are sluggish at detecting slow-burning or smoldering fires, such as those caused by the most common types of fire starters—namely cigarettes, frayed electrical wires, and fireplace embers. By the time an ionization alarm activates, smoke and carbon monoxide levels have likely built up sufficiently to disorient you and make you unable to escape your home.

Joseph Fleming, a deputy fire chief at the Boston Fire Department, says as many as 30,000 people in the U.S. have died in fires since 1990 because their homes were equipped only with ionization detectors.

So why, then, do ionization alarms get placed in homes? For one, they’re cheaper—typically half the price of a photoelectric smoke detector—and the battery on an ionization alarm tends to last longer.

Just beware: Since ionization alarms have such a high false-alarm rate—they can be triggered by cooking or even showering—many people disconnect or “shush” their ionization alarms. If you do, be sure to turn them back on!

Photoelectric smoke detector

A photoelectric smoke detector uses a beam of light to detect smoke particles. And although these detectors are twice as expensive as ionization alarms (it’s no wonder they’re less popular), data from the National Institute of Standards and Technology has found that photoelectric alarms can detect smoke 20 to 50 minutes faster—that’s a significant head start!

Photoelectric alarms are considered the best way to protect your family from fire. In fact, in 2008 the International Association of Fire Fighters recommended that photoelectric alarms be the only type of device installed; several states, including Massachusetts, Vermont, and Maine, require photoelectric alarms in new residential construction.

As for the home you’re currently in, experts recommend you invest in photoelectric smoke alarms in bedrooms and hallways, and leave the ionization smoke alarms in the kitchen, if at all. And ideally you’ll want your alarms to be hard-wired so they don’t rely on battery power (61% of homes have smoke detectors that work only on battery power). Hard-wiring also allows for the devices to be interconnected so that if one detector goes off, they all do (just 25% of homes have interconnected smoke alarms, even though new homes have been required to have them since 1976).

And don’t forget about carbon monoxide detectors

In addition to smoke detectors, all homes should have separate detectors for carbon monoxide—an odorless gas emitted by furnaces, stoves, grills, and other appliances that burn fuel. Carbon monoxide is the leading cause of accidental poisoning, causing about 400 deaths a year.

Check Yourself: 7 Home Maintenance Tasks You Should Tackle in May

We've been fantasizing about it for months, and finally warmer weather has arrived. We know: You just want to fire up the grill and start working on your tan—we do, too! But before you can kick back in your hammock (or in your pool on your giant patriotic bald eagle float, if that's your thing), there are a few tasks you’ll need to tackle.

And you can bet they're all outside.

“The old adage ‘April showers bring May flowers’ rings true and makes May prime time for landscaping and lawn care in most of the country," says Missy Henriksen, vice president of public affairs for the National Association of Landscape Professionals.

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But it goes beyond gardening and yard work. Now's the last chance to take care of all that winter wear and tear and transform your home's outdoor space into something worthy of the host with the most.

The good news? We're here to make it as quick and easy on you as possible—with our handy checklist of home maintenance chores, you can knock them out and get back to that pool float ASAP. We’ve provided tips for doing each task faster and easier—or with the help of a pro.

1. Inspect brick and stone patios and walkways

Don't let your brick and stone walkways fall through the cracks.

Don't let your brick and stone walkways fall through the cracks.

Task: Freezing temperatures can wreak havoc on hardscape surfaces made of loose (unmortared) brick, stone, and concrete paving materials. Check to see if frost heave and erosion have caused pavers to shift, rise, or sink. You’ll want to fix any unevenness for safety as well as aesthetic reasons.

Shortcuts: Repair hardscape surfaces using a wheelbarrow filled with playground sand and a sturdy trowel. Pry up displaced pavers, smooth and even out the bed with fresh sand, and replace the paver.

Call in the pros: This is a good job for a handyman. Expect to pay $30 to $60 an hour, depending on your location.

2. Feed your lawn

Task: After a wet spring, your lawn might be looking quite rich and lush. Since Mother Nature did the hard work, you can sit back and relax, right? Not so fast. Grass loves nutrients, so now's the time to add high-nitrogen fertilizer to help suppress weeds and keep your lawn looking great all summer.

Shortcuts: A push-powered broadcast spreader makes quick work of fertilizing your lawn. You’ll find spreaders suitable for an average suburban lawn for $35 to $100. If you have a cooking compost pile, you can substitute home-grown compost for commercial fertilizers.

Call in the pros: A lawn care company will spray on a chemical fertilizer for about $40 an application.

3. Repair wood fences and gates

Task: Cycles of cold and wet weather cause wood to move, twist, and warp. That can make garden gates fall out of alignment, and can cause fence pickets to loosen or fall off. Check for signs of loose fencing, and fix sagging gates.

Shortcuts: A cordless battery-powered nail gun ($250) makes quick work of refastening pickets and fence supports. Use only galvanized nails for outdoor work. Use a power drill fitted with a screw tip or a hex driver to remove or tighten loose screws and bolts in gates.

Call in the pros: This is a good job for a handyman. You’ll pay $30 to $60 an hour, depending on your location.

4. Mulch flower and vegetable beds

You'll be mulch happier in the long run if you care for your gardens now.

You'll be mulch happier in the long run if you care for your gardens now.

Task: Prevent evaporation and help keep weeds in check by insulating planting beds with 2 to 4 inches of mulch.

Shortcuts: Set aside a mulching day, and have a landscaping service deliver bulk mulch and dump it where you can get to it easily (like your driveway). Plan on 1 cubic yard of mulch to cover 100 square feet, with mulch 3 inches deep.

Call in the pros: A landscaping service will put in the mulch, but it'll cost you—to the tune of $250 to $560 for 500 square feet, depending on your location.

5. Wash windows

Task: As your yard takes shape and your gardens come into full bloom, you’ll want to see everything clearly. It's time to wash away winter’s dirt and grime from your windows.

Shortcuts: Have a partner clean the outside while you do the inside of the same window. That way, you can identify which side of the glass contains lingering streaks and smudges, and get rid of them on the spot. Plus, who wants to clean alone?

Call in the pros: In addition to cleaning the glass, a professional window washer will remove and clean screens and remove accumulated dirt from sliding tracks for $2 to $7 per window.

6. Get your grill in gear

It's time to get all up in your grill's grill.

It's time to get all up in your grill's grill.

Task: Nobody wants a rack of ribs with last year's grill gunk on them. Before you fire up the ol' barbecue, make sure your grill is clean and that any gas hoses and connections are secure.

Shortcuts: No matter what kind of grill you have, invest in a grill brush or other coarse cleaning brush, remove the grates and metal plates beneath them, and soak them in hot soapy water for five to 10 minutes. Then scrub hard. To rinse, spray them with the hose.

Cover the area where the grates usually go with foil, and use a stiff grill brush to clean grime from the hood and inside walls. Use a cleaner specifically designed for your grill's surface (e.g., stainless steel, porcelain, or cast iron), and reassemble all parts.

Call in the pros: There are professional grill cleaners who will take your barbecue from slimy to spotless, but it will cost you the equivalent of a few porterhouse steaks. This Denver cleaning service offers quotes from $185 to $279.

7. Make sure your AC is cool

Task: Now's your last chance to double-check your air-conditioning unit and make sure it's in good working order before the mercury starts to rise.

Shortcuts: Hook up a garden hose and spray the outside of the condenser to remove any dust that's settled on the unit and connections. (Yes, dust can affect your AC's effectiveness.) Don’t use a brush, and be careful if pressure washing—you could damage or bend the fins. Make sure to change the filter, too.

Call in the pros: Having a pro service your AC system costs $100 to $250 and includes cleaning the condenser and lubricating the fan motor.