Children & Adolescents Clinic

 Home Parent's Guide

Clinical Reference Systems: Pediatric Advisor 10.0

Smoke, Heat, and Carbon Monoxide Detectors

The leading cause of deaths and injuries to children at home is accidents. Fires are one of the most dangerous of such accidents. Most fatal home fires occur at night, while people sleep. If you are asleep or become disoriented from toxic gases produced by a fire, you may not even realize that there is a fire. A smoke or heat detector can sound an alarm and alert you to the danger in time to escape.

Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless gas that is produced by many household appliances (furnaces, dryers, ranges, ovens, and heaters). Usually, carbon monoxide and other gases are vented from the appliance to the outside. But, if something goes wrong with the ventilation system and carbon monoxide leaks into your home, it could be deadly. At first, a person with carbon monoxide poisoning feels dizzy and nauseous. The alarm of a carbon monoxide detector will go off so there is time to evacuate before a normal adult starts feeling sick.

The following are some common questions and answers about smoke, heat, and carbon monoxide detectors.

  1. Q. What are the types of alarms or detectors?

    A: There are three types of detectors: (1) heat detectors, which sound an alarm to warn of an abnormally high temperature in the immediate area of the detector; (2) smoke detectors, which sound an alarm at the first trace of smoke; and (3) carbon monoxide detectors, which sound an alarm if the carbon monoxide level in the home is too high.

  2. Q: What is the power source for these detectors?

    A: Some detectors operate on batteries. Others operate on household current and are either plugged into a wall outlet or wired directly into the electrical system.

  3. Q: What are the advantages and disadvantages of the battery-operated alarms?

    A: An advantage of battery-operated alarms is that they are not affected by a fire that cuts off the electricity to the house. Also, they can be placed anywhere, even where there are no electrical outlets or wires. The disadvantages are that the batteries need to be changed about once a year, the beep indicating a low battery can be annoying, and false alarms can occur.

  4. Q: What is the best type of battery to use?

    A: Lithium batteries can last up to 5 or 6 years, reducing the chance that the detector will have a dead battery when you need it most.

  5. Q: What are the advantages and disadvantages of the detectors powered by household current?

    A: Advantages are that you do not have to change batteries and there is no annoying beep when the battery is low. However, fires that affect the household current will make the alarm not work. Also, detectors must be placed where wiring or outlets are available and false alarms can occur.

  6. Q: Do I have to do anything to maintain my detectors?

    A: Yes. You should test the smoke and heat detectors once a month by holding a candle 6 inches away and blowing smoke toward the detector. The alarm should sound in 20 seconds. Some alarms have test buttons, but to be sure the detector works, you must use the smoke- testing method. Use the test button on your carbon monoxide detector. For all types of detectors, you need to change batteries when they are low and use the correct kind of battery. You must clean the unit at least once a year by vacuuming the detector. Never paint the detector.

  7. Q: With so many brands of detectors on the market, how do I choose one?

    A: Be sure to buy a detector that has the label of a testing laboratory--for example, Underwriter's Laboratory (UL)--and follow the installation and maintenance recommendations of the manufacturer. Buy the type that best suits your household needs and budget.

  8. Q: How many smoke, heat, or carbon monoxide detectors should I buy for my house?

    A: For minimum protection, you should install a smoke or heat detector outside each bedroom area and one on each story of the house. For extra protection, it is recommended that detectors be installed in bedrooms, the dining room, furnace room, utility room, attic, garage, and hallways.

  9. Q: Where should the detectors be placed?

    A: Smoke rises, so to detect the first traces of smoke a detector should be mounted on the ceiling (4 inches from any wall) or high on a wall (4 to 12 inches from the ceiling). Heat detectors should be mounted in the center of the ceiling. Carbon monoxide detectors should also be mounted on the ceiling if possible.

  10. Q: How much will it cost to install smoke, heat, or carbon monoxide detectors?

    A: Detectors can be purchased for about $7 to $60 each. Packaged fire detection systems may cost $300 and up.

Please take time to think about the risk to your child and family if they are not protected by smoke, heat, or carbon monoxide detectors. The extra time provided by the alarm of a detector may allow your family to escape unharmed from a fire or carbon monoxide poisoning. The extra time and money spent on purchasing, installing, and maintaining adequate detectors could save your lives.

Written by E. Christophersen, Ph.D., author of "Pediatric Compliance: A Guide for the Primary Care Physician."
Copyright 1999 Clinical Reference Systems