Having a fire alarm system in your home or office is a legal health and safety requirement. However, anyone who has experienced a smoke detector false alarm knows that the noise of a fire alarm going off for no reason is worthy of a spot on the list of most annoying noises in the world.
The two main types of smoke detectors are photoelectric and ionization detectors. If everything works as intended:
- photoelectric smoke detectors use a steady beam of light to detect smoke particles
- Ionization smoke detectors are activated by the chemical interaction between smoke and ions
Unfortunately, even the best smoke detectors are not immune to false alarms. There are several reasons why those could happen, from manufacturer defects to hypersensitivity and bugs (yes, bugs!).
If you are wondering why a smoke alarm would go off without smoke, here are the 8 most common reasons for smoke detector false alarm, and how to prevent them from happening.
- Steam and humidity
Ironically, high water content in the air can trigger a fire alarm. Moisture particles can be so dense that a smoke alarm could be unable to make the difference between them and smoke particles. This is why the humidity in your bathroom after a long shower or the kettle boiling in the kitchen can make your smoke detector go off when there is no smoke.
Prevention tip: Make sure you have a fan working in your bathroom and if your house is generally prone to humidity, make sure to open the windows for a bit every day to ensure proper ventilation.
- Kitchen appliances nearby
Do you feel like your fire alarm is trying to notify your neighbours every time you cook? Regular false alarms related to cooking can indicate that your fire alarm is too close to a kitchen appliance. Some modern smoke detectors can be triggered by a rapid increase in temperature. Therefore, if your unit is placed less than 10 feet away from your oven, toaster or stove, you may have issues with false alarms. Not to mention that a burnt toast or smoky bacon on the pan can trigger any smoke detector even before you can see the smoke.
Prevention tip: The placement of the smoke detector matters. Instead of having it in the kitchen itself, consider installing it in the corridor leading to the kitchen. In any case, always try to place it more than 10 feet away from your kitchen appliances.
- Windows nearby
Another placement-related smoke detector false alarm scenario is caused by draughts. If your unit is too close to a window, particles that come from the outside can get into the sensor and trigger it by imitating interaction with smoke.
Prevention tip: Once again, consider the placement of your smoke alarm. Keeping it 10 feet or more away from a window is a good precaution.
- Bugs and insects
Yes, you can add a smoke detector false alarm to the list of nuisances that bugs and insects cause. The pesky little creatures can sneak into the smallest places, including the small holes on your detector. Once they crawl in, insects continue to move around which causes interference and triggers the sensors of the smoke alarm.
Prevention tip: There’s nothing you can do to prevent insects from making your alarm go off. However, if a false alarm happens, you may want to open up the detector to see if there isn’t a creepy-crawly stuck in there.
- Harsh Chemicals
The smell of harsh chemicals can trigger your smoke alarm very quickly. This could be anything from cleaning products using bleach and ammonia to paints and glue. Despite the lack of smoke, this isn’t purely a nuisance false alarm. If there’s enough strong chemical odour to trigger an alarm, it’s probably not safe for you to breathe the air in the room for too long. Exposure to chemical smells can cause nausea, dizziness, headaches and irritation to your nose, eyes, throat and lungs.
Prevention tip: Ventilation is the answer to both preventing and turning off an alarm that’s going off due to chemical smells. Open a window or a door to let fresh air in the room. It will make you feel better too.
When was the last time you gave your smoke detector a good clean? Often placed on the ceiling, smoke alarms can easily fall under the “out of sight, out of mind” category when it comes to cleaning routines. This results in dust build-up over time and eventually, it can impair the performance of your alarm, causing it to go off for no apparent reason.
Prevention tip: Clean your smoke detectors at least twice a year. First vacuum and then wipe any remaining dust off with a damp cloth.
- Low Batteries
If your fire alarm suddenly starts making an intermittent chirping or beeping noise for no reason, its battery is probably running low and needs to be replaced. This is an in-built safety mechanism which ensures that your smoke detector is always operational. Once it starts, the chirping noise will sounds off every 30-60 seconds and will keep going for a minimum of 7 days. If you ignore it long enough, the battery will eventually die and your smoke detector will no longer work. It’s unlikely though, as the chirping would have driven you to go to the shops much before the battery stops completely.
Prevention tip: Most detectors have a “Test” button designed specifically for testing the battery. Simply make a habit of checking it every few months, so you don’t have to wait for the annoying false alarm noise to notify you that you need to buy a new fire alarm battery.
- Overly-Sensitive Detector
Sometimes, the issue lies within the detector itself. You want your smoke detector to be able to detect smoke and alert you before you are faced with an uncontrollable fire. However, you don’t want your alarm to be going off every time you open the oven to check if your roast is ready. Don’t go changing your detector immediately though. A sensitivity problem doesn’t necessarily mean that the unit is faulty. It can just be a question of re-calibration.
Prevention tip: It’s advisable to check your smoke detector sensitivity once a year just to make sure everything is in order. You may be able to do that yourself provided your smoke alarm comes with a testing manual, or you can call a specialist to do it.
Hopefully, you have found the reason why your alarm is going off in the list above. If not, then a defect with the unit may be the cause of your smoke detector false alarm. If that’s the case, then you may need to buy a new smoke detector for your home or buy a new fire alarm system for your construction site or office building.