You’ll hear the words fire alarm and smoke detector used interchangeably but the reality is that the two are quite different. But why? you might think. After all, both of them make a noise if they detect fire, right? Well, not really. Read along to find out what’s the difference between a fire alarm and a smoke detector, and which one you need. 

What is a Smoke Detector?

As the name suggests, a smoke detector is a device that is designed to detect abnormally high levels of smoke and sound an alarm. The smoke detector notifies you that there is more smoke than there should be in a certain area, which could be an indication that there is a fire but it’s not always the case. Sometimes a burnt toast, cooking smoky ribs on the grill or simply opening the hot oven when the kitchen is cold could trigger your smoke detector.

In terms of coverage, a smoke detector can pick up smoke only in a limited area, so you should have multiple ones throughout your property to ensure you are sufficiently protected. You have a choice between different smoke detectors based on the mechanism used to detect smoke, as well as on whether they are mains- or battery-powered. Find out more about smoke detectors here. 

What is a Fire Alarm?

If the smoke detector is just a sensor, the fire alarm is the system that acts upon the alert. The fire alarm is a bigger system that is usually wired to multiple smoke detectors and sounds an alert throughout the whole property so that everyone can evacuate.

Fire alarms are also set up to be monitored, so if they detect fire, the relevant fire services can respond. This is why workplace fire alarm drills are organised each year to test whether the system works, whether people within the building follow the evacuation plan in time and whether the appropriate signalling system is activated both at the property and at the monitoring authority. 

Fire alarm vs Smoke detector: The Differences 

Yes, that’s right, there’s more than one difference between a fire alarm and a smoke detector. They may have the same goal – fire protection, but their structure, functionality, installation, maintenance and overall capabilities are quite different.  

1. The smoke detector detects, the fire alarm acts

This is the main one. A smoke detector may make a noise but it only works if you are there to hear it. Fire alarms are different, as they are usually monitored. Once the smoke detector picks up high levels of smoke, the sounders of the fire alarm will go off but also, the authorities will be notified automatically and will be on their way.

2. Smoke detectors are actually a part of your fire alarm system

A smoke detector can exist as a single device that is installed in your home. However, a smoke detector can also act as the detecting element of a bigger fire alarm system. Usually, a fire alarm in a large building will have multiple detectors wired to it, so that it can respond to fires in different areas. 

3. Fire alarms can have additional safety features

Being a more sophisticated fire safety tool, the fire alarm can have multiple additional features for extra protection. From water sprinklers to flashing warning lights and emergency help transmitters for the less able, even a direct call box to connect the fire authorities – those are all perks that a fire alarm system can have but smoke detectors don’t. 

4. Smoke detectors are easier to install and maintain

Smoke detectors, especially the more popular battery-powered kind, are a whole lot easier to install than a fire alarm system. There’s no need for wiring and all you need to keep them running is a battery. Mains-powered smoke detectors may be more complicated to install than the battery-powered ones, if drilling into walls is required, but they also don’t need much maintenance after that. 

Fire alarms, on the other hand, not only require a sophisticated installation process but are also subject to yearly inspections by a professional. Compliance with workplace fire safety regulations in the UK also requires weekly fire alarm tests and regular fire alarm drills. After all, a bigger system always requires more care and maintenance. 

Fire alarm or smoke detector: What do I need?

Smoke detectors are usually enough for small residential properties. Having a smoke detector in your kitchen, living room and each bedroom should have you covered. Plus, as smoke detectors are a lower-maintenance product in comparison to a fully fledged fire alarm system, they are a suitable solution for home use. All you need to do is change the batteries if your detectors aren’t wired directly into the electrical supply. 

If you are a business owner or a construction site manager looking to ensure workplace fire safety compliance, then a simple smoke detector won’t be enough. You need a fire alarm system that is powerful enough to alert everyone on the premises in the event of a fire. Also, having fire sprinklers and manual call points can make a huge difference in a large, non-domestic setting. 

In reality, if you are responsible for the safety of a big building, you will have both a smoke detector and a fire alarm, as the smoke detectors will be integrated into your fire alarm system.