Checking Smoke Detectors

Does your home have a smoke alarm? A fire can grow quickly, leaving you with a window of only one or two minutes to get out safely. Early notification of a fire is critical, which is why smoke detectors are so important.

But how do you know your smoke detector is functioning correctly? Looking up at your smoke detector and seeing a light indicator does not necessarily guarantee that your device is working properly. Pressing the test button may confirm that the detector’s battery, electronics and alert system are working, but it does not test the device’s ability to actually detect smoke.

Testing of your smoke detectors should be done monthly. When performing the test, it is important to warn your family members or other occupants in advance. If your smoke detector is connected to a monitored security system, be sure to notify the security company before you start — you do not want the fire department showing up at your door, as this may also result in a dispatch fee.

There are some key points to remember when testing your smoke detectors:

  • Test the power and the siren. Holding down the test button will allow you to determine if there is power to the unit and whether the siren is working properly. Ask someone to go to the furthest room in the house to see if it’s possible to hear the siren. If you press the test button and nothing happens, this is an indication that the detector is not receiving power. At this point, call your electrician or alarm provider to inspect and/or replace the detector.
  • Test for crisis. Just testing for power does not guarantee that the device is working properly. Using a candle or incense stick, place a steady stream of smoke about 18 inches below the device. If the alarm does not sound, the sensor in the detector may be worn out. If this is the case, call your electrician or alarm provider to inspect and/or replace the detector.
  • Once testing is completed, use a vacuum to suction the test material away from the detector. This is your opportunity to now clean the detector. A vacuum cleaner brush attachment can be used to clean any dust, dirt or other debris that may have accumulated. Do not use any cleaners on the unit as these may contaminate the sensors. Vacuuming or wiping away dust is sufficient.

If you have any reservations about conducting a test of this nature, contact your alarm installer or electrician.

Did you know?
Smoke detectors typically last about 10 years. It is usually the sensor inside the device that becomes less sensitive to smoke over time. If you’re not sure how old your device is, you can usually find out by removing the unit from the ceiling and looking on the back. The date of the manufacture is typically printed directly on the unit. If you can’t find the date on the unit, replace it. Always use a qualified professional electrician or alarm installer to install or replace the unit for your own safety. Improper installation could lead to a detector that fails to detect a fire or even shorts out the system.

Jerry Scaini is a Senior Risk Consultant for Chubb Personal Risk Services’ Risk Consulting Group.

The opinions and positions expressed are the authors’ own and not those of Chubb. The information and/ or data provided herein is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional advice. Insurance coverage is subject to the language of the policies as issued.