DennisBeaverJuly 20, 2013 • By Dennis Beaver

It is pretty much common sense — and the law — that we must have working smoke and carbon monoxide alarms in our homes, condos and apartments, which provide lifesaving warning time to get out.  But things get far more serious when buying or selling a house.

Then, unless verification of working detectors can be established, this could easily hold up the transaction. But there is more to the issue than just having these alarms in place, as Debbie Hanson, director of external affairs for First Alert, tells You and the Law.

“There is something that many people do not know about smoke and carbon monoxide alarms which is not only a violation of law, but also has deadly consequences:

“Changing the batteries and pressing the test button is not enough to be sure the device is working. In many units, the device may sound, but this is only proof that it has power, not that the electronics are performing correctly.”

All alarms expire; the electronics have a limited life

Smoke and carbon monoxide alarms are really quite amazing devices. Always on and working from the moment a battery is inserted, they become an electronic guardian angel, saving lives in the two to three minutes it takes to leave before fire engulfs the house.

However, the components have a limited life, requiring replacement of smoke alarms, according to manufacturer’s instructions, but in any event, no longer than every eight to 10 years.

Carbon monoxide detectors have a slightly shorter life cycle of five to seven years, Hanson notes.

“In fact, of the millions of smoke alarms across America, a very large percentage are beyond their life cycle and become significantly less effective.

Data collected by the National Fire Protection Association reveals that over 90 percent of homes in the United States have alarms, but that up to one-third are past their useful life.”

How old is my alarm? When should I change the battery?

We asked First Alert’s spokesperson the same question you are probably thinking of right now: “Sure, we’ve got smoke detectors, but how long we’ve had them is anyone’s guess. How can I find out their age?”

“For newer alarms sold within the past few years, many will have a distinctive end of life chirping signal which can’t be missed. Hear that and the alarm must be replaced.

“Others generally have a ‘replace by’ date visible on the side of the device, but older ones require removing it from where it has been attached and looking for either an expiration date, or date of manufacture.

“If you can’t find this information — or are in doubt about what the numbers mean — then just take it down. These are the most inexpensive forms of life insurance anyone can buy.

“A basic smoke alarm sells for under $20. So, if in doubt, replace it — it would make no sense not to,” Hanson recommends.

Missing or dead batteries haunt firefighters

You and the Law spoke with Hanford Fire Chief Tim Ieronimo and asked, “What is one of the greatest frustrations firefighters deal with in home fires?”

“It is a fire with serious injuries or fatalities where either there was no smoke detector or a nonworking detector, usually because of a missing or dead battery. Nationally, that occurs in two-thirds of home fire deaths.

“Not only are lives lost, but it’s something that firefighters hate to see and can never get used to seeing. It is just so sad, and does not have to happen.”

First Alert’s Hanson agrees with Chief Ieronimo.

“While some of the newer alarms sold in the past few years have 10-year lithium batteries which do not require replacement, all others require the battery to be changed.

“Our industry recommends this be done twice each year, and consumers can easily remember to do so when we switch from winter to daylight savings time. Alkaline batteries are a good choice as they have much longer life and perform better in a wider range of temperatures. But there is one more, simple maintenance task which should also be done at this time to assure proper operation of your detectors.

“A free flow of air is extremely important to assure rapid sensing, so, when you replace the batteries, gently wipe away or vacuum accumulated dust and spider webs which may have accumulated on the detector.”

Finally, Hanson suggests, “For your readers who need to replace their units, this is a good time. Manufacturers have devices which look nicer than in the past and with ultra high-tech features, such as wirelessly communicating with each other and then announcing the location of the hazard.”

In a future report, we will look at the number and placement of alarms, as well as explain the alphabet soup of fire extinguishers.

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.