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Smoke detectors: what you need to know to protect your customers and avoid a lawsuit.

file000289251540Maryland’s new law requiring that smoke detectors have ten-year-life batteries goes into effect July 1, 2013. Working batteries are paramount in ensuring smoke detectors can alert occupants to a fire.

Another important way to ensure smoke detection may be less obvious:  knowing the difference in smoke detector technology–namely, the difference between ionization versus photoelectric detectors–so that you provide the best product for your customer.  Also, add to the list, knowing how often the smoke detector itself–not just the batteries–should be replaced.   This simple, but important, knowledge can not only protect your customers in case of a fire, but can also protect you from a lawsuit.  Smoke Detector Technology 101

The two most prevalent types of technology for smoke detectors are ionization and photoelectric.

Ionization smoke detectors “have a small amount of radioactive material between two electrically charged plates, which ionizes the air and causes current to flow between the plates. When smoke enters the chamber, it disrupts the flow of ions, thus reducing the flow of current and activating the alarm.”  (www.nfpa.org)

Photoelectric smoke detectors “aim a light source into a sensing chamber at an angle away from the sensor. Smoke enters the chamber, reflecting light onto the light sensor; triggering the alarm.” (www.nfpa.org)

There has been a lot of litigation over which technology works best.   For a time, the claim was that photoelectric technology was far superior to ionization for most home fires, and anyone who manufactured ionization detectors was alleged to be liable for defective products and for failing to warn consumers over the difference in technology.

The smoke detector manufacturers hit back with testing, such as the Indiana Dunes tests, first conducted in the 1970s.  According to the manufacturers, these tests showed there was no appreciable difference in response time between the two detectors.  Instead, the most important thing–as anyone in the fire service will still tell you–is to have a working smoke detector of either type.

Now, after years of additional testing on both types of smoke detectors, litigation regarding smoke detectors centers around the need to use different detectors for different types of fires.  Over the years, additional testing and research has concluded that:

“Ionization smoke detection is generally more responsive to flaming fires.”

“Photoelectric smoke detection is generally more responsive to fires that begin with a long period of smoldering (called ‘smoldering fires’).”


So, the NFPA recommends that for the best home protection you should use some of each type of detector in a home, or dual ionization/photoelectric detectors.

What that means for you:  If you aren’t making sure your customers are able to detect both fast, flaming fires, and slow, smoldering fires–by selling and installing both photoelectric and ionization detectors, or combination detectors–you could put yourself at risk for a claim that you did not provide the right level of protection.

Smoke Detectors’ Useful Life

In addition to installing the right type of smoke detector, you need to make sure your customer’s existing detectors are replaced at the end of their useful life.

The manufacturer puts a date code on the detector that tells when it was manufactured–sometimes it’s clearly readable as a date and sometimes it’s a mixture of numbers and letters (in which case, call the manufacturer and get some help deciphering the date code).

Check the manufacturers’ literature for what it says about how often to replace the exact model at issue, but generally speaking smoke detectors have a useful life of 10 years.  Anything older than that should be replaced because it may not work correctly.

For alarm systems you take over, you must inspect the existing system detectors to determine their age, and recommend replacement of those at or approaching ten years (or whatever the manufacturer recommends).  For your existing customers, keep track of when you installed their detectors and follow-up when it’s time to replace them.  This is a great way to stay in contact with your customers (albeit only every ten years or so, and I hope you’re doing so more often than that!).  Plus, it shows you’re knowledgeable and concerned for your customer’s safety.

Finally, you should document in your customer’s file that you have looked at the date codes and recommended to your customer to have them replaced at the end of their useful life.

According to the NFPA, in 2011, U.S. fire departments responded to 370,000 home structure fires, which caused 13,910 civilian injuries, 2,520 civilian deaths, and $6.9 billion in direct damages.   If your company provided fire detection in any of those fires, you do not want to give the injured person, or deceased’s family members, or the property insurer any reason to look to you to recover for their loss–and believe me there are a lot of attorneys willing to take an aggressive stance when it comes to fire and security alarm companies and whether they provided the appropriate level of protection.   So when it comes to smoke detectors make sure you’re installing the appropriate detectors, and that you’re replacing the old ones.

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1 Comment

  1. Adrian Butler, Chairman, The World Fire Safety Foudnation
    June 21, 2013

    Dear Wendy
    Very interesting article.
    However, please examine the Parliamentary speech on this topic delivered in the NSW, Australian Parliament on Thursday the 20th of June, 2013:
    Thank you.
    Adrian Butler
    Chairman, The World Fire Safety Foundation
    NSW, Australia