The Best Smoke Detectors for the Home
Protect your loved ones with the first line of defense against fire and other dangers in your home.
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, well, alarming.
These unsung heroes of home safety are often taken for granted, but as the first line of defense against a house fire, and in many cases a guard against carbon monoxide as well, smoke detectors protect your home and its occupants 24/7. For this reason, the National Fire Protection Association recommends installing smoke detectors throughout the home—one on each floor and one in every bedroom.
Ahead, our guide to the different types of detectors, how they operate, and what to look for—plus, our list of favorites among the best smoke detector options available today.
- BEST OVERALL: First Alert Smoke Detector and Carbon Monoxide Detector Alarm
- TECH PICK: Google Nest Protect Smoke + Carbon Monoxide Alarm
- BEST VALUE: Kidde Smoke Detector Alarm
- HONORABLE MENTION: Kidde Wireless Interconnect Smoke 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.
Photoelectric Smoke Detectors
The chamber of a photoelectric smoke detector contains an LED light, which shoots a beam across the chamber, and a sensor, usually located 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 of 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 frighteningly can smolder for days before becoming a bigger issue.
Ionization Smoke Detectors
Though these detectors employ radioactive types of material, alpha rays, and other seemingly sci-fi technology, they operate on a fairly simple premise: A chamber is filled 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, effecting the sensor’s count and sounding the alarm. Ionization smoke detectors are most effective against fires that are actively flaming.
Dual-Sensor Smoke Detectors
Just as the category suggests, these detectors use both types of sensors. There’s no winner in a race against photoelectric and ionization detectors—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. Here are some features to be familiar with when considering the wide range of models currently on the market, so you can make an informed decision.
Hardwired vs. Battery Operated
Battery-operated models, which tend to be less expensive, 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—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, as 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 hardwired 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—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 that the local fire department can be made aware of issues, even if you’re not home to call. If a carbon monoxide issue could render you unable to call the fire department, your monitoring company can make that call for you, possibly saving your life.
Quality smoke detectors are Underwriters Laboratories (UL) listed. This certification ensures that the detectors meet the 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
1. BEST OVERALL: First Alert Smoke Detector and Carbon Monoxide Detector Alarm
Balancing features, reliability, and affordability, the First Alert Smoke Detector and Carbon Monoxide Detector Alarm is a fine option. This model features an easy-to-clean photoelectric smoke detector in combination with an electrochemical sensor for carbon monoxide detection. Place the dual-purpose unit on the wall or ceiling of any room and you’ll find its 9v battery easily accessed for replacement while mounted. The only real downside to this model is that it doesn’t interconnect or communicate with a monitoring system.
2. TECH PICK: Google Nest Protect Smoke + Carbon Monoxide Alarm
Equipped with the latest technology available today, the Google Nest Protect Smoke and Carbon Monoxide Alarm ties in to existing hardwired systems and also features Wi-Fi communication. It can be programmed to tell you exactly where in the home an activation is taking place through both the Nest app and the built-in speaker. It uses dual-sensor technology to detect both smoldering burns and flaming fires. While these models were designed to work with smart home systems, their compatibility with those systems is dependent on app updates, which means you must remember to keep up to date on your apps. If you forget, the detectors may fail to communicate with a smartphone or central monitoring service.
3. BEST VALUE: Kidde Smoke Detector Alarm
This basic ionization-style model, which runs on a 9v battery, is a reliable option for smoke detection made by one of the best brands in the business. It’s best used to supplement an interconnected system, added to rooms where you want extra protection but can’t cover the cost of wiring or Wi-Fi models. However, these units can be used as your only form of smoke detection as well. Just be sure to install one on every floor and additionally in every bedroom.
4. HONORABLE MENTION: Kidde Wireless Interconnect Smoke Detector Alarm
A great option for older homes without pre-existing fire alarm wiring, the Kidde Wireless Interconnect Smoke Detector Alarm fits the bill. These models can provide interconnecting coverage without expensive wiring or smart home apps. Simple, battery-operated units, they use three AA batteries to communicate with each other through radio frequency, rather than Wi-Fi. When one detector activates, it signals the others through radio waves, causing a fast chain reaction of alarms. With a few of these units, you can even protect such places as detached garages and sheds. The downside is that fluctuations outside the temperature range of 40 to 100 degrees can cause false alarms or premature battery failure.