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Do I really need smoke alarms in my home?

They are some of the most tragic stories you’ll ever read in the news: families killed in their beds by smoke inhalation as they slept; parents unable to rescue their infants from burning bedrooms; sofas and armchairs turning living rooms into infernos in a matter of minutes. And all too often these stories of domestic fires include the saddest comment: the property had no smoke alarms or that smoke detectors were fitted but did not work when needed.

According to safety information organisation Safe4Winter, 90 people each year die in the UK because their smoke alarm failed to work, so fitting an alarm and ensuring it’s functioning correctly is important for any property owner. But what’s the right type of alarm to fit? How many do you need for your home? Critically, how often should you test your smoke alarms?
Dave Simms, head of home contents insurance for Ecclesiastical, offers the following advice and tips.

Type of smoke alarms

Basically there are two types of domestic smoke alarms. The most common and lowest cost is an ionisation smoke alarm with the second being an optical smoke alarm.

Other key difference between smoke alarms is whether they are battery-powered or mains electricity-powered. Mains-powered alarms cost more and will usually need an electrician to fit them. Also look out for alarms that contain an emergency light. When the alarm is triggered the light comes on, which may help you escape from your home in darkness or if the fire has caused a power failure.

Whichever type you decide to purchase, make sure it complies with the British Standard (BS EN 14604:2005) and carries the British Standard Kitemark or LPCB ‘horseshoe’ mark.

How do smoke alarms work?

An ionisation smoke alarm detects particles of smoke as they pass through a tiny chamber inside the alarm. The alarm emits a minute amount of radiation – don’t worry, it’s quite safe – which creates an electrical current between two metal plates. The smoke particles disrupt this current, triggering the alarm.

An optical smoke alarm works in a similar way. The smoke once again passes through a small chamber inside the alarm but this time it’s a beam of light which is disrupted by the particles. Optical smoke alarms are less prone to false activation and are better at detecting slow-burning fires like a cigarette smouldering inside foam-filled furniture.

How many smoke detectors does my home need?

Advice on this varies but in general terms the emergency services say that every home should have at least one smoke alarm but the more you fit, the safer you are.

Where should I fit the alarms?

The first thing to bear in mind is that you need to fit alarms where you’re going to be able to hear them. After all, what good’s a smoke alarm if it’s beeping like mad and you’re still sleeping soundly? Half of all deaths from fires in homes occur between 10pm and 8am.

The next thing to consider is how many storeys your home has. If it’s single story – a flat, perhaps, or a bungalow – fit at least one smoke detector between the living area and the bedrooms. If you home has two or more storeys, fit one detector at the foot of the staircase and one on each landing.

The alarm should be positioned on the ceiling as close to the centre of the room as possible and at least 30cm away from any wall or light fitting.

The wrong place to fit a smoke alarm

Avoid fitting alarms in kitchens and bathrooms as cooking fumes and steam can trigger the alarm. Your garage is also a no-go area if you park your vehicle in it as the exhaust fumes will do the same thing.

How do I check my alarm is working properly?

The fire brigade’s advice on this is very clear: you should test your alarms by pressing the button on them once a week.

When an alarm’s battery starts to get low, it will begin to emit an intermittent beeping to alert you. But even if you don’t hear this, you should change your battery once a year – unless you’ve bought one of the alarms with batteries that have a ten-year life span. It’s also recommended that you change the alarm itself every ten years.

When it comes to maintenance, never paint over an alarm – this can affect its detector – and every six months, open the cover and remove any dust with a vacuum cleaner nozzle.

How much do smoke alarms cost?

They are not expensive. An average alarm will cost £10 from a DIY store if you fit it yourself, which is easy to do. Prices start from as low as £3.

What if I have problems hearing an alarm?

Smoke alarms for hearing impaired people can be fitted with a bright strobe light or a vibrating pad that is placed under your pillow to wake you.

Ecclesiastical Insurance Group plc (EIG) Reg No 1718196. Ecclesiastical Insurance Office plc (EIO) Reg No 24869. Ecclesiastical Life Ltd (ELL) Reg No 243111. Ecclesiastical Financial Advisory Services Ltd (EFAS) Reg No 2046087. Ecclesiastical Underwriting Management Ltd (EUML) Reg No 2368571. E.I.O. Trustees Ltd Reg No 941199. EdenTree Investment Management Ltd (EIM) Reg No 2519319. All companies are registered in England at Beaufort House, Brunswick Road, Gloucester GL1 1JZ. EIO and ELL are authorised by the Prudential Regulation Authority and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority and the Prudential Regulation Authority. Firm Reference Number 113848 (EIO) and 110318 (ELL). EFAS and EIM are authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority. Firm Reference Number 126123 (EFAS) and 527473 (EIM). EUML is an appointed representative of EIO who is authorised by the Prudential Regulation Authority and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority and the Prudential Regulation Authority. Firm Reference Number 402228.