Where to Install Smoke and CO Alarms

A smoke detector on a wood ceiling with smoke around it.

When you're out shopping for the ideal home, you probably aren't thinking, “Where are those smoke detectors?" In fact, many homeowners assume working fixtures are already installed. While detectors make a significant difference in the overall safety of a home, they're often ignored and may even be in the wrong location.

Multiple smoke detectors and carbon monoxide alarms are required to decrease the chance of fire spreading in a home and deadly gases building up. Having multiple alarms means earlier detection of dangerous smoke and better chances of a safe escape.

What's in an Alarm?

Removing batteries from a smoke alarm in the ceiling.

Let's start with the smoke and carbon monoxide detectors themselves. Each unit should be marked with some kind of safety seal or laboratory tested sticker. This is the only way to be sure that it's a trusted and functional product.

If you're looking to install multiple alarms (which you probably should), it's important that all of them are compatible and able to sync up. This is easy to accomplish by purchasing all alarms from the same manufacturer. Many feature wireless capabilities, so when one sounds, they all sound.

You might not know that there are three different types of smoke alarms: ionization, photoelectric, and dual. Ionization alarms can quickly detect smoke coming from fast fires that have large amounts of fuel, like cooking fires. They feature two plates of metal with a small current that can be disrupted by smoke entering the chamber. When this occurs, the alarm goes off. Photoelectric alarms utilize a light source and a light sensitive electric chamber. The light is positioned away from the sensor, unless entering smoke scatters it and triggers the sensor. This type of alarm is best for fires in a slow, smoldering stage. Dual sensors use both methods for detection.

The International Association of Fire Fighters recommends photoelectric smoke detectors since the technology can lead to fast detection of fires, which can be lifesaving, especially if a fire occurs while you’re asleep.

Look at smoke alarms as regular appliances in your home. It's important to perform testing and routine maintenance. Make sure you use long-lasting batteries; some are equipped with batteries that last 10 years. If you use those, be sure to do monthly checks. If an alarm is continually chirping, replace the battery as quickly as possible. Not only is the sound a nuisance, but the alarm will not be effective without a functional battery. If you use a battery with a shorter life span, make it a point to replace them every time you change the clocks for daylight saving time.

Location, Location, Location

Smoke detectors are most effective when properly located. Different factors exist for different homes, but a few guidelines remain the same:

  • Place detectors at least 10 feet away from cooking appliances.
  • High walls and ceilings are the best locations for alarms. If your ceiling comes to a point, do not place the alarm at the very highest point. Place it at least four inches down from the apex.
  • Keep alarms away from doorways, windows, or drafty areas where any wafting air could alter alarm detection.
  • Place alarms on every floor of a multi-story house and in every sleeping area of a home.

Reach Out

A fireman holding a smoke alarm and a fire extinguisher.

If your alarm installation is complete and you don't feel confident about its functionality, reach out to a local electrician or fire person to be sure it is installed correctly. Fire fighters appreciate the work of a fire alarm, as it increases the likelihood of people escaping a fire by 50 percent.

Extra Resources

Fire safety is an inclusive social cause. Resources that provide free installation services for those who have a difficult time installing their own smoke alarms are available.

Some countries have text-enabled programs, such as Australia's 106 Emergency line, for those who are deaf or hearing impaired. America’s 911 system requires a text telephone device, but Next Generation 911 promises to make the process easier. Specialized alarms that strobe and shake are also available to alert those who have trouble hearing traditional alarms.

A Word on Carbon Monoxide (CO) Detectors

A carbon monoxide detector.

At some point, a rumor started that carbon monoxide detectors should be close to the ground. That couldn't be farther from the truth. Place CO detectors high up on a wall or ceiling. Because carbon monoxide is impossible to detect with human senses, alarms are essential to place throughout the house. Many household appliances release these unnoticed noxious fumes and they can be deadly. Combination smoke/CO alarms are available, or you can purchase them separately. Both are very important to the overall safety of your home.

Some Extra Tips

  • Clean detectors with the hose end of your vacuum to keep units free of dust.
  • Replace batteries often.
  • Show children the best ways to escape in the event of a fire and even try a drill.
  • In the event of a fire, do not return to the home after escaping.
  • If you cannot afford a fire alarm, contact your local fire department.

A small investment in a few smoke and CO alarms means a safer home for you and your family. Use these tips to get the most out of your alarms and stay safe! If you need more personalized tips and advice for your home, consider checking out the free weekly workshops and seminars The Home Depot offers on a variety of DIY topics.