What to Do About Smoke Detector False Alarms

Plus How to Know if They're Actually False

smoke detector on wood ceiling

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Smoke detector false alarms are, thankfully, more common than alarms that announce the presence of real fire and smoke. It is a frequent scenario, repeated in homes every day, across the world: The smoke detector alarm beeps, and the homeowner takes action only to stop the sound. Opening doors and wafting the air around sometimes helps. Taking the detector down and permanently removing the battery is never a wise option. Instead, learn why smoke detector false alarms happen, the most common false alarm triggers, and how you can determine the difference between a false alarm and a valid alarm—all so that you, your loved ones, and your home can stay safe.

What Your Smoke Detector's Alarm Is Telling You

Your smoke detector is constantly on guard, sensing the presence of signals that may indicate that a fire will occur or has already occurred. Smoke detectors' batteries are constantly supplying electricity for either of two operations—ionization or photoelectric sensing—that keep watch for these fire-related signals.

Ionization smoke alarms detect advanced fires. With an ionization smoke detector, the radioactive element Americium-241 is charged by the battery and helps to transform air molecules between two electrodes into positive and negative ions. During a fire, smoke enters the smoke detector through holes or slits in the housing. The positive and negative ions then seek the smoke rather than the electrodes. With the circuit broken, the alarm sounds.

Photoelectric, or optical, smoke detectors detect fires in their infancy. Smoke that enters the unit's housing breaks an invisible LED light beam passing from one sensor to another sensor. The beam bounces off of the smoke and hits a different sensor, initiating the alarm.

False smoke detector alarms, also called nuisance alarms, happen when combustion particles of a sufficient quantity and density enter the smoke detector. Smoke is composed of gasses and solid, physical particles that are individually too small to see with the bare eye. Smoke's gasses do not trigger smoke alarms; in fact, this is why you need to purchase a separate alarm to detect carbon monoxide gas. With smoke, only the combusted particles will set off an alarm, whether real or false.

Common Causes of Smoke Detector False Alarms

Any physical interruption of the LED beam or the ion pathway will trigger the smoke detector's alarm. So, in addition to smoke particulates from a house fire, other common reasons for false alarms include:

  • Cigarette smoke directed toward the smoke detector (but usually not ambient cigarette smoke)
  • Cooking combustion particles often from stove spills or broiling
  • Insects within the alarm housing
  • Too much dust in the housing
  • Thick steam within a closed room
  • Mold or mildew building up within the alarm housing
  • Ceiling paint or other ceiling or wall coatings

How to Know a Smoke Detector False Alarm Is Really False

If your smoke detector alarm sounds, first determine if a legitimate house fire is happening or is in the early stages. Check the most common areas where house fires may begin, including but not limited to:

Interior

  • Kitchen
  • Furnace room
  • Chimney
  • Laundry room
  • Rooms with space heaters
  • Rooms that may have candles
  • Bedrooms or other rooms where occupants smoke

Exterior

If you have determined that there is no house fire, take the following steps:

  1. Remove the smoke detector from its mounting bracket and temporarily shut off the smoke detector or remove its battery.
  2. Check the immediate area for any event that may be creating combusted particulates, such as a food broiling in the oven, heavy steam from a bathroom, or dense cigarette smoke.
  3. If you find that any smoke detector is within 10 feet of any cooking appliance, take the unit down (including its mounting bracket) and re-install it just outside of the 10-foot radius. This will help minimize future false alarms when cooking.
  4. Looking at the smoke detector, is its battery still fresh and in good condition? If not, replace the battery. 10-year lithium-ion battery units cannot have their battery replaced. Instead, replace the entire unit.
  5. Look at the back of the smoke detector. Usually, there is a label where homeowners or others who installed the alarm can write the date when the unit was installed. Generally, it is recommended that you replace the entire smoke detector (not just the battery) at least once every 10 years.
  6. Check the smoke detector's housing to see if any debris or insects have entered the smoke detector. Some items can easily be removed manually from the outside of the housing. But debris inside the housing cannot be removed since smoke detectors tend to be factory-sealed. If the smoke detector contains obstructions, it is usually best to purchase a new smoke detector.

Important

Remember to re-start the smoke detector or put its battery back in before mounting the unit on the ceiling again.