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Sat, Oct. 19

Multiple smoke detectors a life-or-death necessity

I want to comment on an article I saw in the July 18 Courier. There was a front-page story on fire sprinkler systems that "not only saved lives, but also have averted potentially high-dollar fire losses."

I cannot agree with this more! I read several trade publications each month, and one lists all the major building fires across the country. When there is no fire sprinkler system, the damage is usually in the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, and there are often injuries or fatalities. When there is a sprinkler system installed, the damage is almost always confined to one area and is in the thousands of dollars range.

I'm convinced that fire sprinkler systems can save lives and injuries, both to the occupants and to our firefighters. I think they should be mandatory in all buildings. Maybe someday.

So this week I will talk about fire safety tips. The first and most obvious is smoke detectors. Smoke detectors can save your life, not to mention that baseball card collection you're saving for your retirement. In newer homes there will be smoke detectors in all sleeping rooms and hallways, near stairways, etc. The detectors will be interconnected, so if one goes off they will all go off. This is a great feature that I'm sure has saved many lives.

If you live in an older home, you should install numerous smoke detectors. Smoke detectors are inexpensive and easy to install, so there's no excuse not to have plenty of them. Make sure you have one in each sleeping room, in the halls outside each sleeping room, at the top of stairways, and at least one on each level of the home. If a ceiling is higher in one room than in an adjacent room or hall, you should have one in the room with the high ceilings. Frequently there is an open doorway from a living room into a hallway. If the wall over the doorway extends more than 18 inches from the ceiling, you should have a detector on both sides of this doorway. The reason for these locations is the smoke will generally collect near the ceiling first. So if a fire starts in a room with high ceilings, or with a doorway with an 18-inch-high wall over it, the smoke will have to 'fill' the first room before it starts entering the hall or adjacent room. Having an alarm go off before the smoke enters the hallway may give you a chance to save those baseball cards.

Often if there is a detector near the kitchen, you will get false alarms. We have a detector near the kitchen in my house that my wife calls the dinner bell. These are usually needed and it is not a good idea to disconnect them. There are detectors available for these locations that sense heat rather than smoke, which should reduce the false alarms. These detectors are more expensive, but you should only need them where you are getting false alarms with a conventional smoke alarm.

I also recommend installing a detector in the garage and in any area with gas appliances, such as the attic or crawlspace.

Many smoke detectors will 'chirp' once a minute or so to alert you the battery is getting low. If this occurs, do NOT just remove the battery or disconnect the smoke alarm. You will easily forget you did this. Let it chirp until you put a new battery in.

Smoke detectors do have a lifespan. Many manufacturers and fire departments recommend replacing smoke detectors every 10 years. As I already noted, detectors are relatively inexpensive, so this is a good investment.

Frequently I see dual cylinder deadbolts. These are the deadbolts that require a key to unlock them from the interior. I see these on entry doors occasionally, but more often on security doors. Fire departments really frown on these because they can hinder getting out of the home in an emergency. I frequently hear owners say they have these because there is a window next to the door and someone could break the window, reach in and unlock the door. I'm just a simple home inspector, but it seems to me that if someone is willing to break glass, they will find a way in.

All sleeping rooms are required to have an alternative exit. These are usually egress windows with certain size and location requirements. Egress window openings have to be at least 20 inches wide and 24 inches high. These numbers were not chosen at random - this is the smallest opening that a fireman with a helmet and oxygen tank can fit through. Bedroom egress windows should not be more than 44 inches off the interior floor, and must open to the exterior of the home (not into a porch or patio). Note that only one egress window is required in a bedroom. If a bedroom has a door to the exterior, no egress window is required.

A bedroom egress window should not be restricted in any way. Security bars are not allowed unless they can be easily opened from the interior. I think they're a bad idea even with this feature because they can restrict entry by emergency personnel.

I've heard this for years and it sounds kind of corny, but your family should make and discuss a fire escape plan, including agreeing where to meet. You may want to meet in the street, at a neighbor's porch, etc. This way you can be sure that everyone is out of the home. You can even assign different 'duties' to everyone. For instance, Mom can collect the pets while Dad saves the baseball cards.

Randy West owns Professional Building Consultants in Prescott. He is a state-certified home inspector and has performed almost 5,000 home inspections in the Prescott area. West is president of the Arizona Chapter of the American Society of Home Inspectors and currently serves on the Home Inspector Rules and Standards Committee for the Arizona Board of Technical Registration. Contact him at

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