Why Buy a Smoke Detector?
The top performers in our review are the Kidde PI2010, the Gold Award winner; the First Alert BRK 3120B, the Silver Award winner; and the First Alert SA320CN, the Bronze Award winner. Here's more on choosing a product to meet your needs, along with detail on how we arrived at our ranking of 10 products.
Installing functional smoke alarms throughout your home is critical to ensuring your safety in the event of a fire. But when it comes to finding the best smoke detectors on the market, there are so many choices that it can be hard to determine which type best fits your needs. To find out which type is best for you, read on or check out our articles about smoke detectors.
Smoke Detectors: Hardwired vs. Battery Powered
Hardwired smoke detectors are connected directly to your home’s electrical system and only switch to battery backup during power outages. Battery-powered smoke detectors have no secondary power source and can be installed anywhere. These are typically installed in older homes where the electrical system hasn’t been updated to facilitate the interconnection of hardwired alarms.
One of the benefits that hardwired smoke detectors have over battery operated models is that they will continue to operate, even with a dead backup battery. As long as the home’s electrical power remains uninterrupted, the alarms will continue to sound off – whereas battery-operated smoke alarms won't ring after the battery power has been depleted.
As a best practice, we recommend using hardwired smoke detectors whenever possible to reduce the risk of danger. However, depending on the age of your home, you may have to opt for battery power if you can’t afford to bring in the services of an electrician to bring your wiring up to date.
Does Everyone Need a Combo Carbon Monoxide Detector?
Carbon monoxide is an odorless gas that can be deadly if you breathe it for too long. According to the CDC, 170 deaths each year are attributed to carbon monoxide poisoning. Carbon monoxide can be caused by improperly operating appliances. The symptoms include fatigue, headache, nausea, dizziness and shortness of breath.
When shopping for a smoke detector, your first instinct might be to purchase a device that also includes the ability to detect carbon monoxide. But before doing that, it’s important to understand that not every home necessarily needs a CO detector. Additionally, not every single room of your home may need one. In this case, it may make better sense to install dual-sensor (photoelectric and ionization) smoke detectors throughout your home, but only install one or two standalone CO detectors in areas where carbon monoxide emissions may be more likely to occur.
The rule of thumb regarding installing CO alarms is that you only need them if you have fuel-burning appliances in your home. These can include oil, propane or natural gas furnaces, water heaters, stoves and ranges. Wood-burning stoves and fireplaces may also emit CO, as can generators. While it’s important to remember that simply having one of these appliances in your home is not a guarantee you’ll be exposed to carbon monoxide, it’s generally a good idea to install them as needed in the event your appliance may malfunction. Also, depending on where you live, you may be required by the city or state to have a CO alarm installed in your home. To ensure you’re within compliance, contact your local city offices or fire department to find out. If you want to read more about how to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning, visit the CDC website.
Different Kinds of Smoke Detectors: Photoelectric vs. Ionization
The two most commonly used technologies that detect the presence of smoke are photoelectric smoke detection and ionization smoke detection. One easy way to differentiate between the two is to remember that the photoelectric method is better at detecting smoldering fires, whereas ionization is best for detecting flaming fires.
Naturally, there’s no way to know in advance what type of fire will strike. For this reason, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) recommends using both types of detectors in your home for maximum coverage. The best method of accomplishing this is to purchase dual-sensor ionization/photoelectric smoke detectors. This combination functionality is available only with our top four rated products.
Smoke Detectors: What We Evaluated, What We Found
Interconnectivity Saves Lives
Consider the possibility that a smoke detector in your basement may be difficult to hear from the other side of your home. If a smoke alarm goes off and it’s too far away to be heard, the consequences could be disastrous. Interconnected smoke detectors trigger all smoke alarms to sound off when one of them is activated, alerting you immediately to the presence of smoke somewhere in your home. Most hardwired smoke detectors are interconnected in this manner, but the majority of battery-operated units are not. The Nest Protect 2nd Gen and Kidde RF-SM-DC are the only two battery-operated smoke detectors on our list that are capable of interconnectivity – yet neither of these units include dual-sensor ionization and photoelectric detection.
Bonus Features Don’t Always Equal Efficiency
Some smoke alarms enjoy great popularity based on the presence of bonus features that don’t necessarily make them more efficient at doing what they’re supposed to do: detect fires and save lives. For example, the Nest Protect 2nd Gen smoke detector is smartphone connected and can send you text alerts when you’re away if an alarm is tripped in your home. The same mobile functionality lets you silence tripped alarms remotely from your smartphone screen, but the unit itself only comes with a two-year warranty and does not come with a dual-sensor detector.
Other combination smoke and CO detectors come with alarms that sound off with a loud beep, followed by a voice that tells you the nature of the alert; however, this feature doesn’t necessarily make the alarm any more effective at detecting hazards in your home. There are also some smoke alarms, like the USI Electric MICN109, that can detect not only smoke and CO but also the emission of natural gas. The tradeoff with this particular device is that it only detects smoldering fires and has a warranty of seven years, where most others come with a 10-year warranty.
Ionization Detectors Can Cause False Alarms
One notable drawback of ionization detectors is that they’re more prone to setting off false alarms caused by steam from hot showers or smoke caused by cooking. The great risk of keeping an ionization alarm in a kitchen or near a bathroom is that too many false alarms could cause you to disconnect the unit out of annoyance or frustration, leaving you wholly unprotected. If you’re planning to install a mix of different types of alarms throughout your home, consider using a photoelectric smoke detector for your kitchen or bathroom and installing ionization alarms elsewhere where the risk of false alarms is significantly lower.
Certain Factors Influence Battery Life
In our research, we found some smoke detector manufacturers who provided information on the estimated number of hours certain units should be expected to last under battery power. The majority of devices on the market, though, offer no such guarantees.
The bottom line with respect to estimated battery life is that it can vary greatly. Factors that play into battery life include battery brand and the environment where the alarm is installed. Another inestimable factor has to do with alarm usage. A battery-powered smoke detector that has gone off once or twice during the course of the year will experience significantly shortened battery life when compared to one that has never been triggered at all. The same goes for hardwired smoke detectors with battery backup. A home that experiences more frequent power outages will cause the hardwired unit to rely on the battery more often, which will cause battery drainage. Either scenario will result in the need to replace the batteries sooner. Regardless of whether you choose hardwired or battery power, bear in mind that you should change your batteries and test your smoke alarm’s functionality at least once per calendar year.
Smoke Detectors: Our Verdict & Recommendations
The best smoke alarms on the market combine ionization and photoelectric detectors into a single unit. Hardwired smoke detectors don’t have to have their batteries changed out as frequently as battery-operated units and are considered to be more reliable, but if you live in an older home, you may have to hire an electrician to handle the installation of a hardwired alarm system. The Kidde PI2010 is the best hardwired smoke detector on the market, combining ionization and photoelectric sensing capabilities and the ability to interconnect with up to 24 other smoke alarms. The First Alert BRK 3120B comes in a close second for its dual-sensor capabilities and interconnectivity with as many as 18 devices. The Kidde PI9010 and First Alert SA320CN are the only battery-operated units on our list that offer dual-sensor functionality. All of the top-rated smoke detectors on our list come with 10-year warranties and solid troubleshooting support from their respective manufacturers.