A guide to smoke alarms in the home

Smoke alarms are our first defence against a household fire, saving thousands of lives every year. Despite this, they often go untested or aren't maintained by UK homeowners.

According to a recent MORE THAN survey, conducted in April 2015, one in eight (12%) Brits claim to have experienced a fire in their home, with over a quarter (28%) of them admitting to not having a fully functioning smoke alarm at the time of the blaze.

Where to install a smoke alarm

Every home should have at least one smoke alarm – ideally one on each landing if a house has several floors.

Smoke alarms should be installed where you will be able to hear them throughout the home, particularly when you’re asleep or when doors are closed.

Alarms should also be installed centrally on flat ceilings and should be at least 30cm (12 inches) away from any wall or light.

Landlords in the UK will be required by law to install working smoke and carbon monoxide alarms in their properties from October 2015.

The proposed changes to the law would require landlords to install smoke alarms on every floor of their property, and test them at the start of every tenancy.

The different types of smoke alarm

  • Optical alarms Optical alarms are ideal for detecting slow-burning fires, such as smouldering foam-filled upholstery and overheated PVC wiring. These alarms can be installed near (but not in) kitchens, as they are less likely to go off when toast starts smoking than ionisation alarms. Best for: bedrooms, hallways, living rooms, landings and stairwells
  • Heat alarms Insensitive to smoke, heat alarms are activated by temperature – so well suited to smoky environments and kitchens. Best for: kitchens and garages
  • Ionisation alarms The cheapest alarm on the market, ionisation alarms react quickly to household blazes by detecting the change in ionised properties of the air, so can detect a fire before smoke gets too thick.Best for: landings and stairwells
  • Multi-sensor alarms These alarms contain two separate sensing elements – optical and heat – which allow them to monitor two different by-products of fire. Best for: stairwells, landings, bedrooms, living rooms and hallways. Not suitable for kitchens.

How to maintain and test a smoke alarm

It’s important that smoke alarms are regularly checked and maintained and tested once a week by pressing the test button to sound the alarm.

Despite this, according to new statistics, over a tenth (12%) of British homeowners admits to currently not having a fully functioning smoke alarm, according to our research.

Furthermore, only one in six (15%) have tested their smoke alarm in the past six months or even longer.

Unless it’s a 10-year alarm, batteries should be changed once a year and never removed for other purposes.

It’s also a good idea to gently vacuum the smoke alarm using your soft-brush hoover attachment to remove dust from the sensors about twice a year.

Smoke alarms should be changed every 10 years.

The future of smoke alarms

Frantically waving a towel at the ceiling while your smoke alarm emits its piercing screech after you’ve burnt yet another piece of toast could well be a thing of the past.

New technologies have been developed in recent years, meaning that smoke alarms can differentiate types of smoke (and steam) – meaning far fewer false alarms.

Some models also give you information and a ‘heads up’, even speaking to you in a human voice, telling you what and where the problem is.

And in case you’re away from home, you can also get sent a message directly to your phone. 

If you’ve been affected by a fire and need some help and advice on making a claim with us, we’re here to help. Before you make a claim, please make sure you have your policy schedule and as many details of the damage as possible to hand, as these will speed up your claim. You can also call us free on 0330 100 7783.


Fire Prevention Handbook

Government measures for landlords

Fire Service

First published 20th April 2015.

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