Smoke detectors are a lot like income taxes: You need to deal with them once a year, not a whole lot of people understand them, and issues with either can be particularly, well, alarming. These unsung heroes of home safety and security tend to be forgotten until they draw attention to themselves or, far worse, fail to function in an emergency.
The National Fire Protection Association recommends each floor of your home, as well as every bedroom, have at least one smoke detector. So it’s important to become familiar with the types of detectors, how they operate, and some of the finer points of fire alarm technology. Even if you don’t think you’re in the market for a new model right now, you very well might be after reading on!
As the first line of defense against a house fire—and, in many cases, a guard against carbon monoxide as well—smoke detectors protect those in your home 24/7. This buyer’s guide will educate you on shopping for one of these essential devices and recommend some of the best smoke detectors by category.
- BEST OVERALL: FIRST ALERT Dual-Sensor Smoke and Fire Alarm
- BEST BANG FOR THE BUCK: Kidde Smoke Detector Alarm
- BEST IN TECH: Google Nest Protect
- BEST INTERCONNECTED: Kidde Wireless Interconnect Smoke Detector Alarm
- BEST VOICE ALARM: Kidde Combination Smoke/Carbon Monoxide Alarm
- BEST DUAL SENSOR: X-Sense Smoke and Carbon Monoxide Detector Alarm
Types of Smoke Detectors
There are three main types of smoke detectors: photoelectric, ionization, and dual-sensor models. While they all do the same job, they go about it differently.
The chamber of a photoelectric smoke detector contains an LED light, which shoots a beam across the chamber, and a sensor that sits approximately 90 degrees from the LED. Under normal conditions, the sensor can’t “see” the LED beam, but when smoke enters the chamber, the light reflects off the smoke particulates and the sensor detects the beam.
The instant the sensor detects the beam, the alarm activates. Photoelectric smoke detectors are most effective at detecting smoldering burns—barely burning fires that can, frighteningly, smolder for days before becoming a bigger issue.
Though these detectors employ radioactive materials, alpha rays, and other seemingly sci-fi technology, they operate on a fairly simple premise: A chamber fills with tiny particles called ions, held in place by electrical charges. A sensor in the chamber knows how many ions are contained within.
When smoke enters the chamber, it removes some of the ions, affecting the sensor’s count and sounding the alarm. Ionization smoke detectors are most effective against fires that are actively flaming.
Just as the category suggests, these detectors use both types of sensors. There’s no winner in a race against photoelectric and ionization detectors, and they each have their own strengths. The use of both sensor types means faster detection of threats across the range of different materials that could be burning.
Even if tested annually, a smoke detector has an operational lifespan of only 10 years. A model older than that should be replaced, regardless of its working condition. To help make an informed decision, here are some features to be familiar with when considering the wide range of models currently on the market
Hardwired vs. Battery Operated
Battery-operated models, which tend to cost less, are usually stand-alone detectors. This means an activated smoke detector won’t alarm a monitoring system or other sensors in the home; only the detector in the smoky area will sound an alarm. The exception would be battery-operated models that are part of a home security system.
Hardwired smoke detectors are wired directly into the electrical system of the home. When one sounds an alarm, typically all of the detectors do. While this may make it harder to pinpoint the unit that actually detected the issue, it does alert everyone in the house to danger, which is undeniably a considerable asset.
Most residential hardwired detectors now use battery backups, so even if the power goes out, the home will still have some fire safety protection. That’s the best of both worlds. Things are a little different in commercial applications, since the fire alarm panel will have the batteries to keep the alarm system live until the generators kick on or the power comes back.
Briefly touched upon above, interconnectivity refers to smoke detectors’ ability to “talk” to each other, alerting the entire system to an issue. For example, if there was an electrical fire with the car in an attached garage, the entire system throughout the house would activate immediately.
Fires can double in size every 60 seconds, so if you were sleeping on the other side of the house, you might not hear a stand-alone detector activate in the garage. Interconnected detectors will make you aware of the issue, potentially before it’s too late.
In a similar circumstance, a car left running in the garage can produce fatal levels of carbon monoxide, which could prove particularly dangerous to folks sleeping in a bedroom above. Smoke detectors with carbon monoxide sensors add another level of safety. While all homes should have carbon monoxide detectors, homes with gas or oil heat and hot water are particularly vulnerable.
Interconnected detectors are often part of a monitored home security system. The great benefit to these systems is they can alert the local fire department, even if no one is at home to call. A carbon monoxide issue could render those inside unable to call the fire department, so the monitoring company can make that call, possibly saving lives.
Quality smoke detectors are Underwriters Laboratories (UL) listed. This certification ensures that the detectors meet UL’s stringent testing requirements. Given the importance of purchasing the best smoke detector system that a household can afford, it’s not worth the risk to install anything that isn’t UL listed.
For those interested in the latest fire-safety technology, some detectors do boast smart features. Many of these detectors not only communicate with an overseeing alarm system but also with users’ phones through Wi-Fi. Some models even allow you to use any TV remote to mute an activated detector.
Our Top Picks
Whether photoelectric, ionization, or dual-sensor, the top picks include smoke detectors to suit a variety of different needs. Just below are some top models on the market to help streamline your search for the best smoke detector.
Balancing features, reliability, and affordability, First Alert’s alarm is hard to beat. This model features an easy-to-clean photoelectric smoke detector in combination with an ionization sensor for detecting both fast burning and slow, smoldering fires. Users can install the mounting plate on a wall or ceiling while still having access to the AA battery compartment.
While this is a high-quality, all-around smoke detector, be aware that it doesn’t interconnect with other devices or communicate with a monitoring system. However, this battery-operated detector has a loud 85-decibel siren that residents will be able to hear throughout most homes.
Those who can’t afford a hardwired, Wi-Fi, or interconnected fire alarm system installed all at once can protect their home, for an affordable cost per unit, with this straightforward option from Kidde. Though hardly a high-tech option, this basic ionization-style model, which runs on a 9-volt battery, is a reliable option for smoke detection.
These units can be used as the only form of smoke detection in a home as long as they are properly installed with one on every floor and in every bedroom. Or use this basic Kidde detector to supplement an interconnected system by adding to rooms that need extra protection.
Equipped with the latest technology available today, Google’s smoke and carbon monoxide detector ties in to existing hardwired systems and features Wi-Fi communication. Users can program the alarm to tell exactly where in the home an activation is taking place through both the companion app and the built-in speaker. It uses dual-sensor technology to detect both smoldering burns and flaming fires.
Though these models were designed to work with smart-home systems, their compatibility with those systems depends on app updates, which means users must remember to keep up to date on apps. If the app is an old version, the detectors might fail to communicate with a smartphone or central monitoring service.
An ideal option for older homes without pre-existing fire alarm wiring, this Kidde model can provide interconnecting coverage without any complex or expensive installation. When one detector activates, it signals the others through radio waves, causing a fast chain reaction of alarms. The only downside is that fluctuations outside the temperature range of 40 to 100 degrees can cause false alarms or premature battery failure.
When a smoke detector begins to sound, panic and confusion can set in rather quickly. To help alleviate some of the stress, this Kidde combination detector sounds clear, easily understood alerts for residents. The detector will repeat “Fire,” “Warning: Carbon Monoxide,” or “Low Battery” for the corresponding condition, offering a clear indication of the hazard at hand.
Kidde’s detector senses and provides alerts for both smoke and carbon monoxide. It also has an easily accessed battery compartment on the front for quick battery changes. And though this unit doesn’t interconnect with other devices, it sounds an 85-decibel alarm for alerting everyone in the house.
To protect your home against both fire and carbon monoxide, consider this unit from X-Sense, which features a photoelectric smoke sensor and an electrochemical carbon monoxide sensor. These sensors operate independently of each other, offering as much detection as possible in an emergency.
The X-Sense features an LCD display to help take out the guesswork. It indicates the CO in parts per million (PPM), as well as the remaining battery life, to keep users up to speed on the condition of their home’s air and smoke detector at all times. This unit also has a 10-year battery life, which means users won’t have to worry about changing batteries for a full decade.
FAQs about Smoke Detectors
Now that you know a bit more about the best smoke detectors, there could be some unanswered questions popping up. The following section consists of some of the most frequently asked questions, so check for an answer to your query below.
Q. How often should I test my smoke detectors?
The U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) states that you should test your smoke detectors monthly and replace the batteries at least once a year.
Q. How many smoke detectors should I have?
The National Fire Protection Association recommends that homes should have smoke detectors installed in every bedroom, a common area outside the sleeping area, and on every level (including the basement and attic).
Q. Are smart smoke detectors better?
Smart smoke detectors provide a bit of extra awareness for their owners, particularly if no one is at home. However, they’re not necessarily better. Some would suggest that having a hardwired system tied into a central monitoring service is the best option.
Q. How do I stop my smoke detector from beeping?
Most smoke detectors feature dual-purpose test and “hush” buttons that will allow the user to test their detector’s functionality but also stop it from sounding an alarm. However, if your smoke detector is simply beeping, it probably just needs a battery change.