How to Troubleshoot Smoke Detector Problems

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We pass under our smoke detectors each day, running in and out of our homes without giving them a second thought. When the seasons change, stop and take time to test your smoke detector. It does not matter how much you spent on a smoke detector, or whether it is hardwired or battery operated. A moment's worth of maintenance could save your family's life.

How to Troubleshoot Smoke Detector Problems
(Rina Summer/Demand Media)

Things You'll Need

  • New batteries
  • Vacuum cleaner
  • Clean dust cloth
Step 1

Take precautions to safeguard yourself and your family when your smoke detector sounds. When the fire alarm sounds, do not immediately assume it is a false alarm. Move your family to safety and contact your local fire department immediately.

Rina Summer/Demand Media
Step 2

Troubleshoot your smoke detectors only once you have determined, without a doubt, that there is no danger of fire in your home.

Rina Summer/Demand Media
Step 3

Turn off all the power in your home before working on any hardwired, interconnected fire alarm systems.

Rina Summer/Demand Media
Step 4

Remove the smoke detector(s) from your ceiling and check that: 1) Dust or bugs are not causing a malfunction; 2) All wires are securely attached; and 3) The battery is securely fitted into the smoke detector.

Rina Summer/Demand Media
Step 5

Vacuum out your smoke detector and change the battery. Dust, dirt and grime can build up in the smoke detector and lead to malfunctions. Even something as small as a bug lodged in your smoke detector can cause problems.

Rina Summer/Demand Media
Step 6

Test your smoke detector by pressing the test button located on the face of your smoke alarm to see if you have fixed the problem. For interconnected fire alarm systems, pressing the test button should cause all fire alarms to sound within 3 seconds. For battery powered fire alarms, test each individual smoke detector.

Rina Summer/Demand Media
Step 7

Look at the lights flashing on your fire alarm. The lights signal what is happening with your alarm. Each fire alarm manufacturer has different code sounds or flashing lights to help you troubleshoot problems, but generally the sequences are as follows: 1) One solid green light: alarm is functioning and power is on; 2) One churp, solid green light and a flashing red light: battery is low; 3) Horn sounds continuously, green light solid, red light flashing: evacuate immediately.

Rina Summer/Demand Media
Step 8

Remove and replace all your smoke alarms after 10 years. At the ten year mark, your smoke detector has monitored your home for over 3.5 million cycles. Smoke detectors older than 10 years have a much greater chance of malfunctioning.

Rina Summer/Demand Media
Step 9

Move fire alarms away from appliances and areas of your home that drop below 40 degrees. Locating alarms in these areas can lead to excessive false alarms. Contact an electrician to move hardwired fire alarms.

Rina Summer/Demand Media
Step 10

Relocate your fire alarms away from areas that normally have a high level of humidity or moisture. Water buildup in the smoke alarm will cause a false alarm or malfunction.

Rina Summer/Demand Media
Step 11

Examine the smoke detector for any water or moisture buildup. If your smoke detector is located in a dry area of your home, check the area for roof or plumbling leaks that can cause the alarm to malfunction.

Rina Summer/Demand Media

Tips & Warnings

  • Use a photoelectric smoke detector in your kitchen. This type of detector has been designed so that kitchen smoke from regular cooking will not trigger the smoke alarm.
  • Ask your local fire department for a smoke detector or a recommendation on which brand to use. Some fire departments will even offer the public smoke detectors at no or a very low cost.
  • Hardwired smoke detectors may require both a working electric line and a 9-volt battery to operate correctly.
  • Do not use rechargeable batteries in smoke detectors.
  • Installing a smoke detector in every room is recommended. At the very minimum, install a smoke detector on every floor of your home.
  • The National Fire Prevention Agency recommends that fire alarms not be installed in dusty or buggy areas of the home.
  • If the fire alarm in your home sounds when it is not being tested, you should take immediate action to protect yourself and your family.
  • The alarm on a smoke detector is designed to sound when it detects smoke, not heat. It is possible to have a fire in your home that is not immediately detected by the smoke alarm.
  • In newly constructed homes, fire alarms are wired in-line. This means that if a smoke alarm goes off in the basement, the alarm will travel to all smoke alarms in your home. It make take a few minutes to locate the actual alarm that was triggered first.
  • The National Fire Prevention Agency recommends that at least two fire alarms be installed in a home, regardless of the size of the home.
  • Do not test fire alarms with an open flame such as a lighter or a candle. This could ignite your fire alarm, lead to a home fire or damage to your fire alarm system.

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