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Prevent A Disaster: Check Your Smoke Detector Now

George Maher, Agricultural Safety Specialist

Photo of a Smoke Detector

North Dakota has seen its share of residential fires this winter. Overburdened stoves, furnaces and electrical circuits are taking their toll, notes an agricultural safety specialist at North Dakota State University.

Nationally, more than half of all structural fires occur in some kind of family dwelling. The result: thousands of lives lost and up to $3 billion worth of personal property destroyed.

"Smoke detectors could go a long way toward saving those lives and reducing the amount of property lost," says George Maher of the NDSU Extension Service.

"Smoke detectors save lives, but not when their batteries are missing or run-down," he says. "Smoke detectors and their batteries are the most inexpensive protection available."

Most detectors use a 9-volt battery that usually costs less than $2. Often a new detector, including the battery, can be bought for about $5.

"Almost every year an entire family is lost in a house fire because the battery was removed to power a toy," Maher notes. "And complete families have been lost because a family member was irritated at the chirping sound that indicates the need for a new battery.

"Get a step ladder and put the smoke detector through its test sequence now--just to be sure it works--and install a new battery if it is needed," Maher urges.

Every smoke detector has a test button that checks the electrical circuits and smoke sensor when it is pressed. Pressing the test button also causes the detector to sound its alarm to tell you that everything is working. When the battery needs to be replaced, most detectors sound a chirping alarm. Some detectors have a flag that pops out when the battery is discharged.

Maher advises testing smoke detectors at least once a month, especially during the heating season. Frequent checking will not significantly weaken the battery.

"Always replace the battery when it is weak," Maher says. "Your life and others may depend on that battery in the next 24 hours."

Some smoke detectors are powered by the home's electricity and don't have batteries. These hard-wired detectors should also be tested frequently. If a hard-wired smoke detector is found to be unreliable, replace it immediately, Maher says. It is good practice to have a battery-powered detector as a back up for the hard-wired detector.

"Frequently people take the battery out of their smoke detectors or turn them off because of nuisance alarms," Maher notes. "That may be a deadly mistake." A better solution may be to eliminate the cause of the alarm, move the detector or try a different brand.

Nuisance alarms are often caused by placing the detector in a bad location, cooking, an improperly adjusted fireplace or space heater, smoking or excessive humidity. Carefully follow the installation instructions for the detector to minimize nuisance alarms.

There should be a smoke detector on each floor of the house.

"The closer the detector is to potential fire sources such as the kitchen, hot water heater, furnace, fireplace or wood stove, the more time you may have to escape," Maher says. The bedroom area of the house is the most important area to protect. Escape paths such as stairwells and hallways are other important locations for smoke detectors.

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