Last month, my middle daughter was home from New York for a visit. It was a week of reminiscing and doing all the things she loves from childhood: baking cookies, hiking up Mt. Tamalpais, getting frozen yogurt and walking around with it downtown at dusk. And of course, waking up at 5:17 am to the sound of her father swearing, perched precariously on a ladder in her room as he batted with a broom handle at a screeching smoke alarm.
"Fire! Fire!" a tinny robotic voice said from somewhere inside the plastic unit.
Will we never learn? I imagine that somewhere in the world is a family that has perfected the art of replacing smoke alarm batteries a full 24 hours before the detectors go crazy in the middle of the night, preventing them from causing mayhem, cursing, and panic. This organized and prepared (and perhaps mythical) family does not have tiny dogs with large ears and a low threshold for high pitched noises, who shake uncontrollably and jump panting into my middle daughter's bed at the first hint of battery failure.
"Isn't there an app for this?" she mumbled, rolling over and falling back to sleep.
Good question. Most of the time a smoke alarm seems so unassuming and discreet, just a low-profile disk floating on the ceiling. Until it's not. Why was it built with a dependency on batteries and a propensity to disrupt slow-wave sleep every few months?
Above: A smoke alarm from Kupu. At least some smoke alarms are stylish.
I am not disputing the value of the smoke alarm as an invention; it saves lives. A man named Duane Pearsall invented the home smoke detector in the 1960s by accident while he was trying to manufacture darkroom equipment. He noticed, while tinkering with photographic instruments, that whenever his assistant lit a cigarette, the sensitive gadgets went haywire. "This was probably one of the best things ever to come from cigarette smoking," Pearsall's wife Marjorie said decades later. Back in the 1960s, before smoke alarms were routinely installed in homes, about 8,000 people annually died in residential fires. These days there is at least one smoke alarm in more than 96 percent of US homes, and the number of fire-related deaths has decreased to about 2,500 a year.
What I don't understand is why a smoke alarm is designed to be a nuisance and to run on a 9-volt battery. While the design may make the battery people very happy in the short term, it creates a loathing for batteries in general. I also have a fire sprinkler system in my house, installed as city code requires during a recent renovation. The sprinklers, hidden behind more flat ceiling lozenges, are in every room. Can you imagine if they also depended on 9-volt batteries and failed every few months, drenching the house? I would have to sleep in rubber footie pajamas and a shower cap. Or what if the fire extinguisher in the kitchen depended on batteries—and started spraying foam all over the dinner guests every few months?
The truth is it's your (and my) job to remember to properly maintain your smoke alarms, which involves these five steps:
1) Change your smoke alarm batteries; the smoke alarm's responsibility ends after waking you and throwing you into a full-blown panic with its buzzer. It is suggested that you change the batteries at least once a year, on days when you set the clocks back or forward one hour (read more at Lifehacker) or on your birthday.
2) Clean your smoke detectors with a vacuum at least twice a year (or more frequently if you have dust or insect problems). Also, never paint your smoke alarm; it can interfere with its operation.
3) The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) suggests that you test your smoke detectors at least once a month using the test button.
4) Don't disable a smoke detector if it's misbehaving. Investigate the cause; usually it's because the alarm is positioned too close to a cooking appliance (the NFPA recommends installing a smoke alarm at least 10 feet away from your range or oven) or to a bathroom, where steam can trigger a nuisance alarms. In the event of a nuisance alarm, open the windows or doors and wave a towel at the alarm to clear the air.
5) Replace all smoke alarms when they are 10 years old.
Is your smoke alarm obnoxious too? Or have you taught it to behave? All suggestions welcome!Planning to upgrade your smoke alarms? See 5 Essentials: Smoke Alarms. For our best-looking favorites, see 5 Essentials: Smoke Alarm Roundup. And read all our Domestic Dispatches posts here.