Construction practices and building codes vary from climate to climate and from country to country. In some places, smoke detectors are rare. But Canada’s National Building Code requires that they be installed not only in new buildings but also on every floor and in every bedroom of buildings new or old.
The requirement of smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors has also become a standard provision of insurance policies. In the US, the use of smoke alarms in homes rose from 10% in 1975 to 95% in 2000. The National Fire Protection Association reports that during the same period, deaths caused by home fires declined by half. Canada achieved comparable success by rapidly adding smoke alarms to buildings, after which the number of deaths by fire declined by up to 62 percent.
Now that we have considered how important these life-saving gadgets are, let’s take a look at the new generation of smoke detectors and whether they are worth buying.
What Are Smart Smoke Detectors?
A smart device usually has two things: Wi-Fi connectivity, so that it can be operated remotely by using a smartphone app; and sensors, so that it can be highly reactive to environmental changes.
Smart smoke detectors have additional functionality that includes self-monitoring of the battery charge and a self-testing feature, both of which can send notifications to your phone. These features let you know that you don’t have a defunct fire alarm in your home.
Some smart smoke detectors can also detect odourless but deadly carbon monoxide (CO). This capability is a must-have feature for homes that have chimneys or use gas as a heating source. Carbon-monoxide poisoning is a definite risk: on average, there are on average 300 CO-related deaths annually.
How Smart Smoke Detectors Work
Like smart light bulbs and smart window blinds, smart smoke detectors combine the power of Wi-Fi with the power of sensors. If they sense even a whiff of smoke, these detectors trigger an alarm that is transmitted through the Wi-Finetwork of your home to your smartphone app.
The first generation of smoke alarms used heat to detect a fire. They worked by using a material that reacts to temperatures that exceed a specified threshold. When a temperature higher than the threshold is reached, the alarm siren is activated. But the fire must be already well under way if the heat is to be intense enough to drastically change the room temperature and trigger the alarm. That’s why smoke detectors were invented: so that a fire can be stopped at a much earlier stage, before it can really spread.
The three main kinds of smoke detector are distinguished by the kinds of sensors they use.
- An ionization sensor consists of a chamber with a negligible amount of radioactive material between electrically charged plates. When smoke enters the chamber, the flow of ions between the plates is disrupted, triggering an alarm. Ionization sensors are best for detecting smouldering fires.
- A photoelectric sensor consists of an emitter and a receiver. The sensor emits light on the visible or infrared spectrum. If that light is interrupted by smoke particles, it triggers an alarm, making such sensors suitable for motion detection as well. They are best for detecting a rapid, raging fire.
- The third type of smart smoke detector combines an ionization sensor with a photoelectric sensor.
Smoke alarms that are also carbon monoxide detectors rely on an electrochemical sensor. The best smoke detectors combine all three types of sensors.
When smart fire alarms are connected to a smart home hub, they can be coordinated to trigger a sound alarm even if only one of them detects smoke.
If you happen to accidentally trigger a sensor while cooking,it is easy to quickly turn off a smart smoke detector by tapping on your phone app instead of fiddling with the ceiling unit itself.
When you are far away from home, an alarm notification allows you to notify emergency services so that they can respond. If you also have a smart home camera, you can connect to it to check whether the alarm is a false alarm. If it is a false alarm, you can avoid having the fire department break into your home and damage property needlessly.
What to Look for in a Smart Smoke Detector or Smart Carbon Monoxide Detector
The first consideration is whether the detector relies primarily on a battery or is hardwired like a ceiling light bulb.
A battery-powered smoke detector works even if there is a power outage. But you must periodically replace the battery. Fortunately, modern smart smoke detectors notify you when the battery is low, just as your smartphone does. And today’s battery-powered Wi-Fi smoke detectors often have long-lasting 120-volt lithium batteries that can last up to a decade before the battery needs replacement.
Hardwired smoke detectors usually have a battery backup in case of a power outage. More importantly, hardwired detectors are usually interconnected, so that if one of them is triggered, all of them are triggered. The major downside of hardwired smoke detectors is that they require more involved installation.
Hardwired smoke detectors are convenient and easily replaceable, but smoke detectors that are only battery-operated are much more convenient when a new fire alarm needs to be installed quickly and cheaply.
A good smoke detector does more than notify you when it is triggered. It also alerts you when it needs to be wiped free of dust so that the sensor can work optimally.
More Accurate Detection
All smoke detectors look alike on the outside. But many different things can be packed into that small amount of space. A detector with home-automation capability can detect both smoke and deadly carbon monoxide. First Alert 2-in-1 is solid second-generation Z-Wave device. (Z-Wave devices consume less power than Wi-Fi but have a greater range than Bluetooth.)
Home Automation Safety Features
The advantages of running all of your devices on a smart home automation system with a network like Z-Wave are considerable. For example, if you also have a smart lock installed, you can unlock the door to let firefighters or neighbours come in. If you have an air conditioning system and a smart thermostat plugged into a smart hub, you can turn off the AC to stop the flow of air. All of this can be done using your smartphone.
Remote access is a key feature of any smart home. While you are away, you can use your smartphone app to check on what is going on at home. If you have Wi-Fi security cameras with motion sensors, you can visually check your home inside and out. The cameras also let you check whether there is really smoke or fire in the home or it’s a false alarm.
Self-Test with Advance Low-Battery Warning
Government agencies recommend that you test smoke detectors once a month to ensure that they are operating optimally. Whether smart or dumb, most units have LED lights signalling their condition. Using your smartphone, you can test smart detectors to determine whether the chassis is clear of dust or whether the battery charge is sufficient.
Listener Devices Smartify Your Smoke Detector Without Requiring You to Replace It
If you want only the notification capability of a smart smoke alarm, but you have old units that lack Wi-Fi connectivity, you can solve the problem with a listener device. This is a gadget that you plug into an electric outlet so that it can listen for the sound of an alarm from smoke detectors.
Because listener devices have Wi-Fi connectivity, they can send you a message when the smoke alarm has been activated.
Another way to smartify your first-generation smoke detector is to plug a Roost Smart Battery into it, which you can do whether the detector is hardwired or battery-operated. This small device is Wi-Fi-enabled and costs less than CAD$40. It sends you a notification whenever the smoke alarm is activated. But it works only on alarms that can accept a nine-volt battery.
Editor’s Choice: Nest Protect Smoke and CO Alarm (Second Generation)
In the category of multi-featured smart smoke alarms, it would be hard to find a better deal than Google’s Nest Protect. When it detects smoke, it first uses voice alerts to warn you, giving you time to respond; then it triggers a siren.
If you have a large house with multiple Nest Protects, you can use the Nest app to see in which room the alarm was triggered. You can quickly and easily silence a false alarm by tapping on the mute button.
Ability to Interconnect
If you buy several Nest Protect units, each newly added unit will wirelessly communicate with the first one, borrowing its settings. You need a Wi-Fi connection only to set them up; once they are set up, they are within their own network. So even if you have a Wi-Fi outage in your home, the network between the Nest units will keep operating.
Any of the Nest Protect nodes in the network will trip the alarm in the rest of the units if its own alarm is activated. The units are also backward-compatible, which means that first-generation units and second-generation units can interact with each other.
Certain types of sensors are better at detecting smouldering fire, others at detecting raging fire. Nest Protect uses both sensor types to recognize different fire sources as soon as possible.
Battery or Hardwired
Battery-operated smart smoke detectors are most appropriate for homes that currently have no detectors. Nest Protect can come in either a hardwired version or a battery-operated version. You should be aware of how they differ before you buy. The most important one is that the wired version updates more frequently because it doesn’t have to conserve battery charge.
Whichever smoke alarm and CO detector you choose, keep in mind that the detectors should be replaced within ten years. The older they are, the more likely it is that their sensors are becoming less accurate.
Because smart smoke detectors are becoming mandatory for new dwellings in Canada, it would be wise to choose your home automation ecosystem before you move into a new home so that you can ensure the smoothest possible compatibility. Google devices work with other devices within the Google Home ecosystem. But Z-Wave devices can also work with Google devices if you connect them using a smart hub that serves as a bridge.