Home Fire Alarms – California City Requires Use of Photoelectric Smoke Alarms

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Winter is when more homes fires start. Portable heaters, faulty furnaces, and other factors conspire to cause a seasonal spike in residential fires – and fatalities. It’s also a good time to remind people that the best type of smoke detector is one that’s monitored, vs. the traditional standalone “noisemaker” – more on that point later. A California city is in the news for its recent decision on what works best for early fire detection:

Palo Alto has become the second city in California to require the installation of photoelectric smoke detectors in new homes and businesses. The City Council voted unanimously Monday to mandate the use of the devices, following the lead of Albany. The fire chief of the East Bay city, Marc McGinn, is crusading to phase out the most common type of smoke alarms, known as ionization detectors.

Did Palo Alto Get it Right?

Mr. McGinn is certainly following the trend – from Europe (where in some countries, you can no longer purchase an ionization smoke alarm) to Australia, the vote is for photoelectric. When I first joined the electronic security industry in the late 1980’s, it was possible to buy ionization smoke detectors or the photoelectric style – they were used almost interchangeably. Today it is very difficult for alarm companies to purchase the ionization type: they are not even offered by many alarm equipment distributors.

What’s the Difference?

Here is the definitive word on smoke detector technology, from the NFPA (National Fire Protection Association). Please note: FrontPoint is a loyal NFPA member!

Ionization smoke detection is generally more responsive to flaming fires.
How they work: Ionization-type smoke alarms have a small amount of radioactive material between two electrically charged plates, which ionizes the air and causes current to flow between the plates. When smoke enters the chamber, it disrupts the flow of ions, thus reducing the flow of current and activating the alarm.

Photoelectric smoke detection is generally more responsive to fires that begin with a long period of smoldering (called “smoldering fires”).
How they work: Photoelectric-type alarms aim a light source into a sensing chamber at an angle away from the sensor. Smoke enters the chamber, reflecting light onto the light sensor; triggering the alarm.

So, the conclusion is that photoelectric is more sensitive to smoldering fires, which makes it a better technology for early detection. Makes sense.

What is Best for You?

Of course, if your smoke detector is not monitored, then it does you no good when you’re not home – or when you are overcome by smoke. Remember, smoke inhalation is the cause of most home fire fatalities. That’s why FrontPoint recommends at least one monitored smoke detector for every home alarm system. You want to know that help will be on the way. And yes, the one we sell is the right one: it’s GE’s best wireless unit, and it actually combines two heat-sensing technologies in addition to the photoelectric sensor. Since we specialize in home alarm systems that offer the best protection you can find, we’re proud to offer extra peace of mind with fire monitoring, too – and, unlike many of our competitors, with FrontPoint it doesn’t cost a penny extra.

Comments (2)

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  1. Alan

    Peter,

    I’m very happy to see you cover this VERY important subject and distinction between the two types. As you note, Fire Chief McGinn is adamant in his opinion that all ionization sensors should be replaced with the much more effective photo-electric smoke sensors. He would be very happy if he ever sees this post and the distribution it will receive being on this site.

    And yes, FP sells some of the best equipment out there, the fire/smoke detector no exception. I should know since I use all but about 2 zone slots (out of 39 available) on my Simon XT with you guys… translated, I have about 37 sensors and devices programmed into my panel (and as a side note, in 4 years, have never had to replace any batteries yet!… and many of those sensors get HEAVY use… amazing!)

    Anyway, thanks again for the excellent blog and discipline to post just about every day. Very cool!

  2. Alan

    Peter,

    I’m very happy to see you cover this VERY important subject and distinction between the two types. As you note, Fire Chief McGinn is adamant in his opinion that all ionization sensors should be replaced with the much more effective photo-electric smoke sensors. He would be very happy if he ever sees this post and the distribution it will receive being on this site.

    And yes, FP sells some of the best equipment out there, the fire/smoke detector no exception. I should know since I use all but about 2 zone slots (out of 39 available) on my Simon XT with you guys… translated, I have about 37 sensors and devices programmed into my panel (and as a side note, in 4 years, have never had to replace any batteries yet!… and many of those sensors get HEAVY use… amazing!)

    Anyway, thanks again for the excellent blog and discipline to post just about every day. Very cool!

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