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Smoke alarm buying guide: Compare costs and safety requirements

Learn how to choose a smoke alarm that meets your needs while complying with state laws.

A house fire can cause damage to your home and property as well as endanger your life and the lives of your loved ones. However, your risk of a residential fire resulting in death is cut in half* if there is a working smoke alarm installed in the home. Australia has strict regulations to make sure every residence has an effective smoke alarm.

Our guide will help you figure out your state regulations as well as help you compare smoke alarms so you make the right choice to keep your loved ones safe.

What types are available?

In some parts of Australia, you can choose between two different types of smoke alarms: ionisation models and photoelectric models. However, many states recommend the use of a photoelectric alarm.

Ionisation

Ionisation smoke alarms are able to detect small particles that enter an ionisation chamber. When the number of particles in the chamber reaches a certain threshold, an alarm sounds. Unfortunately, the types of particles detected by ionisation alarms are generally only created when there is a flaming or very hot fire. These fires don't produce much smoke but do burn very quickly. A slow-burning fire that does not produce large flames or visible particles but does produce dangerous smoke may not be detected by an ionisation alarm. Ionisation alarms also frequently pick up flames and heat from cooking, so it is not recommended to install one near a kitchen.

Photoelectric

Photoelectric alarms are recommended by most fire services across Australia. This is because photoelectric alarms can detect a fire much more quickly than ionisation alarms can – especially a fire without large flames. These alarms work by using a beam of light to detect visible smoke that enters a chamber. When the amount of visible smoke reaches a certain threshold, the alarm is triggered. Photoelectric alarms are much more sensitive to smoky, smouldering fires than ionisation alarms. They will often be triggered faster than ionisation alarms.

Battery-powered vs hardwired

Some smoke alarms are powered by a battery, while others are hardwired or mains-powered. Hardwired models are typically installed in a house during construction as they need to be connected directly into the household power line. These units also include a backup battery in case of power loss. Depending on where you live, you may be required to have a hardwired smoke alarm with a backup battery installed in your home.

No matter which type of alarm you have, the batteries will need to be replaced regularly. For those of us who forget when it's time to change the batteries, battery-powered models signal an alert when the batteries are running low.

What are the requirements for each state?

Just about every home in Australia is legally required to have at least one smoke alarm. Australian Standard 3786 dictates the rules each residence must follow. However, some states use different versions of standard 3786. To find out the specific standards for your state, check the official government websites for your state below:

What to look for in a smoke alarm

The cost of an ionisation alarm ranges from $10 to $50 and the cost of a photoelectric alarm ranges from $20 for a basic model to $100 or more for a model with additional features. Generally, you should replace your smoke alarm at least every ten years.

Keep in mind, you may also have to pay for installation. The cost of installation will depend on the size of your home, how many smoke alarm are required, the height and type of ceilings in your home, the structure of your home and individual circumstances.

When shopping for a smoke alarm, look for the following features:

3 things to consider

  1. How to install a smoke alarm. Smoke alarms need to be installed by licensed electricians in most states and hardwired alarms always need to be installed professionally. Installing a smoke alarm illegally, improperly or not at all may result in fines or even criminal charges. If you are unsure about who can install your new smoke alarm, check out the specific regulations for your state.
  2. Where to put your smoke alarm. Depending on where you live, you may be required to have a smoke alarm in each bedroom, hallway and stairway. Generally, it's not recommended to have a smoke alarm in your kitchen as cooking can set off false alarms. However, cooking is the leading cause of residential fires, so it's a good idea to have a smoke alarm nearby. Ionisation alarms are prone to false alarms from cooking, so look for a photoelectric alarm to install near your kitchen.
  3. How many smoke alarms do you need? Every home needs at least one smoke alarm. The total number of required alarms in your home depends on the size and layout of your home and on the number of stories your home has.

If a fire started in your home, would you know what to do?


*Source: Fire and Rescue NSW 2018

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