According to the the National Fire Prevention Association (NFPA), an average of 2,500 home-fire-related deaths occur each year, and roughly three out of five of them are caused by non-existent or non-functioning smoke alarms. Meanwhile, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that an average of 170 people die from CO produced by home appliances such as “furnaces, ranges, water heaters and room heaters” annually, and the EPA attributes up to 20,000 lung-cancer deaths per year to radon exposure. Learn about the various types of home detectors and how to make the most of to protect you and your family.

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Stats like these make it clear that installing and maintaining smoke, carbon monoxide, and radon detectors is key to your household’s health and safety. Below is the information you need to install proper detection devices and keep them in working order.

Smoke Home Detectors

There are two main types of fire alarms—ionization alarms, which are good at detecting smoky flames, and photoelectric alarms, which can detect smoldering, slow-burning fires. You may want to purchase dual alarms, which include both types of fire detection capabilities, or install both types of detectors. Here’s a quick guide to fire alarm selection, installation and maintenance.

1. Key Features:

  • According to Consumer Reports, smoke detectors must meet Underwriters Laboratories Standard 217 (check the packaging)
  • Hardwired alarms should include backup batteries
  • When purchasing new alarms, check to make sure they’ve been manufactured within the last year

2. Placement:

  • Make sure to install smoke alarms on every level of your home, including one inside of each bedroom, and one near the outside of each bedroom
  • For levels that don’t include bedrooms, place smoke alarms in gathering areas and near stairways
  • To avoid false alarms, install smoke alarms at least 10 feet away from cooking appliances
  • Smoke alarms can be placed directly on the ceiling, or on walls, no lower than 12 inches from the ceiling
  • For pitched ceilings, install alarms between 4 and 36 inches from the ceiling’s peak

3. Maintenance Routine:

  • Test smoke alarms at least once a month by pushing their “test” buttons to see if they beep
  • Replace batteries at least twice a year—including backup batteries for any hardwired alarms

4. Replacement:

  • Install new smoke alarms at least every 10 years

Carbon Monoxide Home Detectors

Most cases of indoor CO poisoning are caused by improperly vented or malfunctioning furnaces and appliances. CO is colorless and odorless, and even low levels of exposure can cause permanent damage. Here’s how to choose, install and maintain CO detectors.

1. Key Features:

  • Choose an alarm that gives you a digital readout of current CO levels—that way you can see how much carbon monoxide is in the air, even if it’s not significant enough to cause the alarm to sound (which is generally 70 ppm)
  • According to Consumer Reports, CO detectors must meet Underwriters Laboratories Standard 2034 (check the packaging)
  • Hardwired alarms should contain backup batteries, especially since CO-generating heating systems such as fireplaces and generators tend to be in higher use when the power is out
  • When purchasing new alarms, make sure they’ve been manufactured within the past year

2. Placement:

  • Install alarms at least 10 to 15 feet away from furnaces, ranges and other combustion appliances to avoid false alarms
  • Avoid placing alarms near fans, vents or windows
  • Gas rises, so consider using alarms that can be installed on or near the ceiling, rather than using plug-in models
  • Install alarms in all bedrooms, as well as in gathering areas

3. Maintenance Routine:

  • Each month, press and hold each alarm’s test button until it beeps—if it doesn’t, change the batteries
  • For hardwired alarms, replace batteries every six months

4. Replacement:

  • CO detectors become less sensitive over time and need to be replaced every five years

Radon Home Detectors

The EPA estimates that up to 8 million U.S. homes may have exposure to radon, which is a colorless, odorless, radioactive gas that’s produced by decaying uranium found in groundsoil. It most commonly enters homes and other buildings through foundation cracks, floor/wall joints, loosely fitted drainage pipes and other structural weaknesses. Levels of over 4 pCi/L are considered dangerous.

While a few continuous monitoring systems have come on the market in recent years, the EPA still recommends testing radon levels by using a combination of short- and long-term test kits.

1. When to Test:

  • Home buyers should do a short-term test before purchasing a property
  • Homeowners should test every couple of years, during both cold and warm weather
  • Short-term tests should be followed with long-term tests

2. How Testing Works:

  • Short-term tests absorb radon through activated charcoal and take 2–7 days to complete
  • Long-term testing uses “alpha tracking,” in which radon alpha particles leave tracks on specialized pieces of plastic (these tests take 90+ days to complete and are more accurate than short-term tests)
  • Both types of tests typically require you to mail your kit to a lab for analysis and results

3. Where to Get Test Kits:

4. Getting Accurate Results:

  • Follow the directions that come with your specific kit
  • During short-term tests, keep windows and doors closed, and don’t use ventilation systems that  bring in air from outdoors
  • Don’t test during stormy or windy weather
  • Place your test kit in the basement or first-floor level of your home, in a frequently used area, but not in a kitchen or bathroom

Fire alarms, carbon monoxide detectors and radon home detection kits are all inexpensive and simple to use. If you haven’t assessed your home safety systems lately, do it today. Then update your calendar with regular maintenance dates, and breathe a sigh of relief, knowing that you’ve taken the proper precautions to keep your household safe.

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About the Author: is a full-service home remodeling and construction general contractor serving the greater Seattle, Denver, Phoenix, San Francisco, San Jose and San Diego area. Home improvement is hard, and we make it easier for you every step of the way. That starts by understanding your goals, whether it’s making a space more livable, expanding your home, repairing damage, adding room for relatives, or something completely different. We’ll work with you to ensure you’re happy with the project from start to finish.