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Smart Smoke Detectors

Early Smoke Detectors

While the smoke detectors most people take for granted today are a relatively new phenomenon, the science behind them has been around for over a century. An automatic electric fire alarm was patented in the US in 1890 by Francis Robbins Upton, an associate of Thomas Edison. However, it wasn't until the 1930s that a Swiss physicist, Walter Jaeger, accidentally invented an early form of the ionization smoke detector while attempting to develop a poison gas detection system.

Ionization smoke detectors hit the US marketplace in the early 1950s, but they were made for commercial and industrial use. It took several more decades before residential single-station smoke detectors became available at the astounding price of $125 each. Over the next two decades smoke detector technology advanced to the point where the price was reduced tenfold, and their use became commonplace, even mandated.

How Smart Smoke Detectors Are Different

The routine single-station smoke detectors of the last century typically use a 9V battery for power. When they detect smoke, they let off a loud alert, and when the battery needs replacing, they chirp to remind you (somehow this always seems to be in the middle of the night, never at a time when changing out the battery would be convenient.) Enter the smart smoke detector.

Smart smoke detectors are more programmable and often linked to wifi, so users can monitor battery status, receive alerts of smoke detection, and network their smoke detectors all via mobile devices, even from outside the home. No more waking in the wee hours to haul a step ladder under a chirping detector or frantically waving dishtowels and pie plates when you accidentally set off the alarm with burnt toast. Notification by SMS or email, as well as colored alarm codes, facilitate smart smoke detector use by the hearing impaired, and if you're away from home when a fire breaks out, you can make arrangements for pets to be saved and the fire department notified.

Current Trends in Smart Smoke Detectors

There are a couple of truly smart smoke detectors on the market today (versus devices that make existing monitors "smart" by retrofitting them-see below). By far the most talked about is the Nest Protect, developed by Tony Fadell, who formerly worked on the iPod for Apple. Nest, which has been acquired by Google, also produces smart thermostats, and both types of devices can be networked together for the ultimate in home protection.

The Nest Protect also monitors carbon monoxide (CO) in the home and when connected to the smart thermostat can shut of the furnace when CO levels exceed safe thresholds. Carbon monoxide can be emitted by cooking equipment, heaters, motor vehicles, fireplaces, and power generators, especially when these items are used without sufficient airflow. Carbon monoxide binds preferentially with hemoglobin in the bloodstream, meaning it will keep oxygen from being inhaled as it should. CO poisoning can cause sleepiness, headaches, nausea, vomiting, loss of motor control, loss of consciousness, and even death. Infants, pregnant women, the elderly, and people with lung disease are especially prone to CO poisoning.

The Nest Protect is easy to mount, and although some users have found it a bit complicated to set up technically, it has a number of appealing features. Its "Heads-Up" system provides red, yellow, and green lights on the detector to indicate status, the yellow light appearing when smoke or CO are initially detected in small amounts, such as with something burning on the stove. Notification is sent via mobile device, a human voice alerts homeowners to the presence of a problem, and if the smoke or CO levels increase, the alert is upgraded to an 85-decibel alarm sound. A wave of the hand in front of the Protect silences the alarm.

Multiple Protect monitors in different rooms can be connected via wifi. Voice notification can be programmed to alert users as to which room is experiencing smoke or excess carbon monoxide. Battery checks, sensor function, and detector settings can all be controlled from a compatible smart phone or tablet. A built-in nightlight can be activated to be automatically turned on by triggering a motion sensor.

The Nest Protect comes in a black or white modern design and costs between 10 and 12 times the amount of a standard smoke detector. You can purchase the Protect in a wired or battery powered version; the wired model uses AA batteries as backup in case of power loss.

The Nest Protect doesn't have much competition yet when it comes to smart smoke detectors. Birdi (formerly known as Canary) is a smart smoke and CO detector that prides itself on monitoring air quality as well. Like the Protect, Birdi will call or text your mobile when there is an emergency, and its programming and status can be controlled by smart phone or tablet. Birdi's manufacturers are hoping to see sales grouped in the same buildings or neighborhoods, so that air quality trends within small environments can be monitored and addressed as needed.

Retrofitting Existing Smoke Detectors

For homes that already have working smoke detectors, the cost of replacing them with smart detectors may be a deterrent. For those folks, retrofitting their smoke alarms may be a solution. For about one-third the cost of the Nest Protect, Roost makes a wifi-connected 9V battery that can be used with any existing smoke alarm to make it "smart".

The battery includes a microcontroller and a low-power wifi chip with a five-year lifetime. By using a free app, you can get mobile alerts when your battery gets low or when an alarm goes off. The Roost wifi battery will also work in carbon monoxide detectors and water leak alarms. Roost is still collecting investors for this product, which is expected to be widely marketed soon.

Kidde, long a manufacturer of standard smoke detectors, has recently released the RemoteLync, a device that plugs into any electrical outlet and alerts users via mobile if one of the standard alarms sound. With a life expectancy of 10 years and a price under $100, this may be another good option if you have monitors already and like the idea of smart alerts. RemoteLync also uses a free app and allows you to enter a network of emergency contacts, including 911, in case you can't be reached-great if you're traveling far from home or have a job that limits telephone interruptions.

Similar to the RemoteLync, the Leeo Smart Alert Nightlight is a plug-in light that sends notifications and calls if a home smoke or CO alarm goes off. If it receives no response from you, it moves to the next person to notify in your network, which is managed via mobile app. The nightlight can be programmed to numerous colors to match your decor, and the Leeo also monitors humidity and temperature in your home. At about $100, this is another good choice for the elderly, the hearing impaired, or people who frequently leave their home in the care of pet or baby sitters.

Recommendations for Smoke Detector Use

One of the biggest problems with smoke detectors is that people either don't use them properly or leave them unpowered when their batteries expire. The NFPA (National Fire Protection Association) states that three of every five home fire deaths is due to a complete lack of smoke alarms or a lack of working smoke alarms. Smart smoke detectors are a step in the right direction here, as they make it easier to stay on top of battery status and change the battery when it's convenient for you.

Minimally, there should be one smoke detector on each level of your home. Ideally, each bedroom should be equipped with a smoke detector, and there should be one outside each sleeping area of the home, as well as one on each level.

Some other tips for smoke detector use

  • Be sure to test your smoke detectors as often as the manufacturer recommends. A smart detector will either do this for you automatically or allow you to perform the test remotely via mobile device.

  • Replace the smoke detector's batteries and the unit as often as suggested by the manufacturer.

  • Have a fire escape plan for your home, and go over it with every family member, especially young children. Inform house sitters and baby sitters about your fire detection equipment and how it works.

  • Laws about smoke and carbon monoxide detectors vary between states and municipalities. Check with your local fire department to make sure you have an adequate number of smoke detectors for your home, especially if you are doing renovations, building a new house, or renting property.

  • One area where smart smoke detectors could use improvement is in the types of fires they detect. Smart alarms currently only use photoelectric detection, which is fine for slow-growing, smoldering fires, but not as good as ionization detection for detecting quick-flash fires, such as a pile of papers meeting with a candle. Some standard smoke alarms are dual sensor models - they use both ionization and photoelectric detection - but this has yet to be utilized by smart models. Both Consumer Reports and the NFPA recommend backing up photoelectric smart detectors with extra ionization monitors. Until a monitor exists that combines dual smoke sensors with CO detection, there is no perfect smoke detector, no matter how "smart" it is.