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Check your smoke detectors, please. And make sure you have more than one.

Early Monday morning, a fire broke out a couple of streets over from me. Sadly, there was one casualty, a seven-year-old second grader who attends the same school as my oldest son. His older sister heroically came and got him and tried to lead him out the front door, but they became separated and he lost his way.

The paper noted that there have been a large number of fires with fatalities in my area in this past year. It did not speculate on the reasons, but I think I know why.

I think inadequate smoke detectors have a lot to do with it.

I say this because, as a landlord, I venture into a lot of houses. I rarely see a house for sale that has more than one smoke detector in it, even when the house last sold a few years ago. And I can’t think of a time that I saw a house that had enough of them. I’m sure the situation is better at the higher end of the market, but the lack of smoke detectors I see is epidemic.

A $5 smoke detector belongs in every bedroom, every hallway servicing bedrooms, and every habitable floor. (Image courtesy of Wikipedia.)

Right now, St. Louis County requires you to have a smoke detector in each bedroom, hallway, and one on every floor. You can buy a house, but you won’t be moving in until the smoke detectors are there. The same goes for having adequate fire blocking around all plumbing and in the garage. But enforcement was rather lax until recently. When I bought the house my family lives in 11 years ago, it didn’t have a single smoke detector in it. None. And the county didn’t say a word.

The only reason I know is because I have to get a house inspected any time a new tenant moves in, and I face the wrath of a county inspector if I get anything wrong. If the code changes and the typical homeowner doesn’t comply with it, he or she is technically breaking the law, but the county will never know it.

And that’s the problem here. I’ve lived in this house 11 years, and I’m still one of the newest guys on my street. Only two other houses on the street have changed hands since I moved here. And those rental houses? They’re surrounded by neighbors who’ve been living there for decades. The majority of people here buy the home at a young age and keep it for the rest of their lives,so there’s no telling how many people around here bought a smoke detector in 1982, hung it up, and think they’re practicing good fire safety because they replace that battery every once in a while.

I don’t blame the homeowners. Nobody told them. And the county has good intentions by updating the code and enforcing it when the houses change hands, but the word isn’t getting to existing homeowners.

And that isn’t good fire safety. As the electronics in a smoke detector age, they become less effective. And the placement of a single, aged detector could very well mean that by the time it starts sounding the alarm, it’s too late to get out safely.

The sad thing is, this is entirely preventable. Anyone who can afford to own a home ought to be able to afford basic protection: Home Depot sells a battery-operated smoke detector made by Kidde for five dollars. Lowe’s has a similar low-end detector made by First Alert that sells in a two-pack for $9. Four or five detectors will cover most homes more than adequately. Place the detectors near the door of the bedrooms, and near the exit in the hallway.

Top-of-the-line smoke detectors announce with a human voice and have enough intelligence to tell the difference between the steam from your hot shower or burnt toast from a real emergency, but the price tag can be off-putting. Anyone can at least afford the basic protection, and then they’re more likely to live long enough to upgrade to something more sophisticated. Or you can put a nicer one in the hallway to prevent those false alarms and outfit the bedrooms and the basement with the $5 specials.

And if you want to go the extra mile, a CO detector costs about $12. Put one by your thermostat and another one in the basement.

Replace the batteries once a year (the beginning or end of Daylight Savings Time is a good time to do it) and replace the smoke detectors every 10 years and the CO detectors every three, and you have basic safety at a price anyone ought to be able to afford.

It could save a life. Every human being has infinite value, so it’s worth $5 to save one.

There are plenty of PSAs around this time of year reminding people to change the batteries in their smoke detectors, but none–that I’ve heard at least–that tell you how many you need, where they need to go, and informing you that you don’t have to pay $30 per unit anymore.

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3 thoughts on “Check your smoke detectors, please. And make sure you have more than one.”

  1. “Replace the batteries once a year (the beginning or end of Daylight Savings Time is a good time to do it)”

    Better: Just buy ones with 10 year lithium batteries (or buy the lithium batteries separately), and when the battery dies its time to buy a new one anyway.

    1. It’s better for the lifetime of the battery, absolutely. But my fear is that if one isn’t in the habit of looking at something every year, 10 years is long enough to forget when it’s time to replace it.

      Some people are very good at remembering things like that and some aren’t. Those who aren’t probably ought to stick with the $5 model and change the battery when the PSA says to. If you’re constantly overdue to change the oil in your car and frequently pay the water bill late because it’s quarterly rather than monthly, you’re better off with something that makes you change the battery every year.

      1. Even basic low-end alarms chirp at you when the battery starts to go.

        Earlier this year I discovered that nowadays they also chirp at you when the sensor goes bad. So basically, if you buy one with a lithium battery, you can forget about it until it starts beeping at you, at which point it’s probably time to get a new one.

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