Smoke detector shopping: What to look for when choosing a smoke detector

Free program in some cities will install detectors

CINCINNATI - When you walk down the smoke alarm aisle, there are lots of claims that catch your eye.

In big bold letters the packaging says long-life battery, tamperproof and maximum protection. Our 9 On Your Side consumer investigation found it's the fine print you really need to pay attention to when buying a detector.

If you look along the crease or back of smoke alarm packaging, you typically find a warning about the different types of smoke alarm technology. Some manufacturers tell you to buy both an ionization and photoelectric detector for maximum protection from all types of fires.

Ionization alarms detect fast-flaming fires quicker and photoelectric detectors sense smoldering fires faster.

Chip Ambroz said he's never seen it until we pointed it out.

"They should probably make it bigger so you would know," Ambroz said.

Most consumers we spoke to had no idea there were different types of detectors.

In the majority of homes, there are ionization alarms. Ambroz just bought seven of them for one reason.

"They're the cheapest," Ambroz said.

Ambroz paid more attention to price because he thought all the words on the packaging were meaningless to his family's safety.

"I thought it was marketing," Ambroz said.

Smoke detectors tested

In a 9 On Your Side consumer investigation, we put smoke detectors to the test. We bought ionization, photoelectric and dual-sensor alarms from the two leading manufacturers.

In a simulation of a smoldering fire, the photoelectric alarms sounded nine minutes faster than the ionization alarms. In government tests, the average time difference was 30 minutes.

That's why the Consumer Product Safety Commission, four fire safety groups and the manufacturers recommend both alarms for maximum protection.


Decoding the packaging

Figuring out which alarm is which isn't easy.

You need to look for a "P" or the word photoelectric and the letter "I" or ionization. Sometimes the indication is on the bottom of the packaging and other times it's on the back. It comes in all different size fonts.

At stores like Lowes, just look at the shelf price tag. It's much easier than finding the type of alarm on some of the smoke detector packaging.

Ohio Fire Marshal weighs in

Smoke alarms save lives, but some argue they're not saving enough people.

911 calls for help are going out, but people are not making it out alive. In November, two people died in a fire Cleveland . In January, two college students died in University Heights .

Ohio's Fire Marshal Larry Flowers said any working smoke detector will save your life. Flowers said he believes too many people are dying in Ohio because they don't have working detectors. He said he also believes the government testing and our testing can't be the sole reason to switch alarms.

We asked Flowers if he thought ionization alarms give people enough time to escape.

"In most scenarios, yes. There are so many factors that take place. The contents of the room, where they are in the room, how easy it is to get out. There are so many conditions of the residence and conditions of the sleeping area and human conditions, and we believe in those cases it's true. There are so many various factors. Every fire is different. The first is different so we are not comfortable saying one is better than another," Flowers said.

Flowers recommends any alarm, and his office handed out 1,901 ionization alarms and 245 dual sensor alarms in the last year.

He's also asking fire investigators to collect better data as that may provide more guidance on this issue. Flowers wants to know what type of alarm was in the home for fatal fires. It is only a suggestion at this point and not a directive.

"I can't force the local fire investigators to do anything. They work for those independent communities, but our message has been try to find out what kind of technology is in the house," Flowers said.

Right now, that message is being sent through word of mouth.

We asked if a memo is necessary.

"Absolutely. There is always ways to improve communication. We believe the word has gotten out. We have no direct authority over the local fire departments," Flowers said.

Flowers  asked a task force to look into the different technologies and fire safety in general. The group released its report this summer and found, "There are no statistical differences in the performance of the two existing types of smoke alarms initially discussed, i.e. ionization or photoelectric. Both meet current performance standards."

"Every fire is different. The fire is different that we are not comfortable with saying one is better than another," Flowers said.

The State Fire Marshal recommends any alarm, even though the two leading manufacturers, the Consumer Product Safety Commission , and four leading fire safety groups ( National Association of State Fire Marshal s, National Fire Protection Association , U.S. Fire Administration , and International Association of Fire Chiefs ) say you need both alarms for maximum protection.

We asked Flowers

why his position is different than the National Association of State Fire Marshals.

"I think they've looked at what data they have and made the decision, and I respect them for that. I am a member of that organization. I don't think we are unique in Ohio," Flowers said.

If you can't afford the maximum protection, manufacturer First Alert said, "In that event, either technology provides adequate time to escape in most fires."

A message Flowers supports, given what's happening in Ohio.

"If we didn't have the scenario where we are having such a large number of fatalities without the smoke detectors maybe we could turn our attention toward one technology or another," Flowers said. "About 90 percent of the fire fatalities we have had, have not had a working smoke detector. They sometimes had the detector, but the battery was missing or the battery in it was sitting on a shelf rather than installed properly. Our message always was and continues to be -- have a working smoke detector."

We crunched the same data, obtained by the State Fire Marshal's Office, and found it could not be determined if the detectors were working in the majority of last year's fatal fires. The statistics given to 9 On Your Side by the marshal's office show 50 of the fires had an "undetermined" status. That means it could not be determined if the detectors were working.

The fire marshal's spokeswoman said reports from the scene from fire officials, neighbors and survivors show those detectors were not working in those undetermined cases. Since the state could not submit those reports as evidence in a court of law, it must label those cases as undetermined for federal statistics.

While the State Fire Marshal recommends any working alarm, the office has handed out dual alarms, which have both technologies. In the past few years, the Fire Marshal handed out 1,901 ionization alarms and 245 dual sensor alarms.

While many agencies recommend both types of alarms for maximum protection, some groups including the International Association of FireFighters, support only photoelectric alarms.

Many believe they lead to less false alarms.

For more information from the U.S. Fire Association about smoke alarms visit .

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