Smoke alarms often mean the difference between life and death in cases of a building fire. FireSafety.gov reports that about two-thirds of fatal home fires involve absent or non-working smoke detectors. But as important as the devices are to the safety of families, they also have some shortcomings.
The two main types of smoke detectors -- ionization and photoelectric -- contain technologies that work well under some circumstances and not so well in others. Ionization detectors respond more promptly to fires involving high flames, and photoelectric detectors alert home owners more quickly to slower-burning, smoldering fires.
Smoke detectors not hardwired into a home's electrical system rely exclusively on battery power, requiring regular checking and replacement. A smoke detector with a dead battery saves no lives.
Smoke detectors installed too close to bathrooms or steam rooms trigger false alarms when steam interrupts the light beams or electrical currents inside smoke detectors.
High dust areas -- including workshops, wood shops or near chalkboards -- can trip the sensors inside smoke detectors, sounding false alarms.
Installing smoke detectors near stoves, toasters or toaster ovens is a quick recipe for false alarms. Unfortunately, these areas are among those most in need of careful monitoring for fire hazards. Heat detectors, which sound alarms based on sharp temperature change, are worthy substitutes in such areas.