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Reyne Stapelmann: Time to Rethink California Smoke Alarm Laws

California law requires that smoke alarms be installed in every "dwelling intended for human occupancy." The specific requirements may vary depending on the type of property, the number of units and the number of stories of the property.  (Cal. Health and Safety Code section 13113.7).  

If you go to your local hardware store you will see that there are two different types of smoke alarms available, one being Ionization which uses radiation to detect smoke and the other photoelectric which uses light.  

Ionization alarms respond to flaming fires but don’t necessarily respond to smoldering ones. They have a history of false alarms from shower steam and cooking smoke, and many people disconnect them because of this.  

Photoelectric alarms respond after a long period of smoldering, which has been attributed to more fires involving death due to smoke inhalation.

Massachusetts was the first state to require photoelectric smoke alarms and Ohio, Vermont, Iowa and Maine have followed their lead requiring photoelectric alarms statewide.  

Here in California, the city of Albany was the first to change their ordinance in 2010, and they were followed by Cathedral City, Palo Alto, Orange and Sebastopol.

The American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI) has stated that, “During 1991-1994, a research team at Texas A&M University, Department of Construction Science, conducted extensive testing on residential fire detection devices. The research project was titled 'Full-Scale Research and Testing on Fire Detection Systems in a Residential Structure.' 

"The Texas A&M study concluded that, during smoldering fires, the probability of a fatality was 55.8 percent with ionization alarms but only 4.06 percent with photoelectric alarms. The study also concluded that, in fast-flame fires, the probability of a fatality was 19.8 percent with ionization alarms but only 3.99 percent with photoelectric alarms.

"This testing was based on a fault-tree analysis design developed by Bell Labs for the U.S. Air Force. The Texas A&M research clearly demonstrates that when all factors are taken into account, such as how often each alarm gets disabled due to nuisance alarm problems, to how they respond in actual testing across the full spectrum of fires, photoelectric alarms have a clear advantage.”

They recommend that every home have photoelectric smoke alarms installed as they believe they are superior to the ionization units. It may be time for the State of California to re-think its smoke alarm laws.

To check the type of smoke alarm you have, look on the back of the unit. Photoelectric alarms will often have a capital P as well as Photoelectric printed on it. Make the change today as the life you save may be your own.  

For more information read "Silent Alarms; Deadly Differences” in the ASHI Reporter, June, 2013. 

Reyne Stapelmann is a broker associate with Berkshire Hathaway Home Services, California Properties and the 2015 president of the Santa Barbara Association of Realtors. Contact her at [email protected] or 805.705.4353. The opinions expressed are her own.

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