Updated: June 2015
Fires kill more people each year than all natural disasters combined. Even though most homes have at least one smoke alarm, homeowners may be surprised to learn that smoke alarms are just one part of a state-of-the-art fire protection system.
Dollar for dollar, a smoke alarm is one of the best investments you can make to fireproof your home. They're affordable, typically between $6 and $40 each. And since they're constantly scanning the air in your home or apartment for fire and smoke, they act as a 24/7 "silent sentry."
If you're like most homeowners or renters, your home probably already has at least one smoke alarm. But it's important to remember that different smoke alarms rely on different technologies—and that they're not quite as simple as "set it and forget it."
Ionization alarms typically respond faster to flaming fires, while optical (or photoelectric) alarms may respond more quickly to smoldering fires. Although you can install separate ionization and optical smoke alarms, most manufacturers make dual alarms that contain both sensor types.
Hard-wired alarms can be wired into your home's electrical system, but require hiring an electrician; battery-operated smoke alarms can be low-stress DIY project.
Smoke alarms are usually mounted high on ceilings or walls at least three feet away from vents, or kitchen/bathroom doors.
Check manufacturer sites for ideas on how many smoke alarms your dwelling needs. Pay special attention to bedrooms.
Remember to check the batteries at least every 6 months — make a mental note to check them when you change your clocks. Read the smoke alarm's manual for any special requirements.
Replace smoke detectors once they're 10 years old.
A smoke alarm can detect a fire, but an automatic residential sprinkler system can take the next step and actually put that fire out. Studies by the United States Fire Administration (part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency) indicate that installing residential fire sprinkler systems could have saved thousands of lives and prevented a large percentage of fire-related injuries.
Fire loss figures are astounding — 2,590 civilian fire deaths, 13,050 injuries, and $7.8 billion in property damage due to fires in 2009 alone. Considering their potential for saving lives and property, it's not hard to understand why residential sprinkler systems are becoming an increasingly popular part of homeowners' fire-prevention arsenals.
The idea of a built-in automatic sprinkler system may seem daunting, but they can usually be installed in new construction's piping or retrofit to the water supply of an existing home.
A key advantage of residential sprinklers is that they're specifically designed to react quickly, before fires have a chance to spread to multiple rooms. Newer residential sprinklers typically respond to a fire much faster than standard commercial and industrial sprinkler systems, limiting the fire's size and impact to a small area.
As soon as it's activated, sprinklers near the fire spray water on the burning object or area to control or extinguish the fire. The system doesn't deploy water from every sprinkler in your home —just the one nearest the fire, which helps control potential water damage to your home. This addresses another deadly aspect of fire — the water actually lowers the air temperature, potentially resulting in even fewer fire losses. Since residential sprinklers discharge water at low rate, water damage to your home is also minimized.
Installing a sprinkler system costs about $1.50 per square foot in new construction, and from $2.50-$5.00 per square foot in an existing home, depending on the complexity of the install.
A quality fire extinguisher should be the final piece of your smart fire safety kit. However, shoppers may be surprised to learn that there are five distinct types of portable fire extinguishers — as well as various multi-purpose extinguishers — each designed to battle a different type of fire:
Class A, for ordinary combustible material like cloth, wood, rubber, paper, and plastics.
Class B, for fires involving flammable liquids like grease, gasoline, and oil.
Class C, for fires involving electrical equipment like toasters or electrically powered tools.
Class D, designed for combustible metal fires.
Class K, generally found in commercial kitchens, are used for fires involving vegetable/animal oils and fats found in cooking.
Remember, only use a portable extinguisher if the fire department has already been called; the fire is small and contained to a single object; there is no danger of toxic smoke; there is an escape route; and your instincts tell you using the extinguisher is safe.