ANNUAL MANUAL-Smoke detectors: Not created equal

Are you and your family adequately protected from a house fire? You might think you're safe if your house is equipped with smoke detectors and you regularly check the batteries. 

You need to check again.

There are two types of smoke detectors, and they are not created equal. The difference between them could be life or death.

Repeated tests– including a 2008 test convened by the Hook and conducted by officials from three jurisdictions– have shown that the type found in more than 90 percent of American homes do not promptly detect smoke from smoldering fires, the type of fire most likely to kill when residents are sleeping. 

That means you and your entire family could fall victim to the toxic gases released by such a fire before the detector ever sounds. The superior-testing type of detector, photoelectric, senses smoke from both smoldering fires and flaming fires, and, in addition, is less likely to give false alarms.

How do you know if you have the more common type, the ionization detector? If the detector has a big letter "i" anywhere on the outside, that's a clue. If it has a "hush" button for false alarms, it's most likely an ionization detector. And any mention of a radioactive substance means it's ionization.

Even if you see none of the above clues, statistically, there is still a greater than 90 percent chance that you have ionization detectors. Experts say when in doubt, throw it out– but not until you have replacement models in hand and ready to install.

Fortunately for homes equipped by ADT, Brinks, or other home security companies, the detectors they provide are most often photoelectric.

You can purchase photoelectric detectors for about $20 at various local hardware stories including Meadowbrook Hardware  and Martin Hardware, both on Preston Avenue– as well as the major online retailers. At minimum you should place a detector on every floor of your home as well as in every bedroom, since closed doors can block the flow of smoke, delaying the reaction time of any detector.

Ironically, the biggest local hardware store, Lowe's on Seminole Trail, does not carry photoelectric detectors. It does, however, carry the type given out by both Charlottesville and Albemarle fire departments through their free detector programs. This is the combination detector, which utilizes both ionization and photoelectric components, something photoelectric advocates consider far preferable to ionization-only. The downside: they are more expensive than photoelectrics, and they remain particularly prone to nuisance alarms, something which leads people to disable them– thereby leaving themselves and their families unprotected.