Smoke detectors and fire alarms are such a common feature in American homes that some people forget they even have them installed until they accidentally burn their dinner, of course. However, it's important to remember that a smoke alarm is an inexpensive way to protect your family from fire and smoke, as well as preserving your property investment. These devices detect fires minutes before a person, and therefore allow your family essential extra time for escape. But smoke alarms are only effective if they're working properly. According to the National Fire Protection Association, 3 in every 5 home-fire deaths occur in households with no working smoke alarm. The same survey also found that in 23% of those home fire cases, the properties had smoke detectors but they were not working. So, how often should the average person check their fire alarms to protect their home, their business, and their future?

Step 1: Check Them Every Month

According to the USFA (United States Fire Administration), it's important to examine your smoke detector and fire alarms at least once a month. While cautious homeowners may want to check their alarms more frequently, once a month should be enough to mitigate most of the risk that comes with under-performing alarms. However, you may find that it's crucial to check your detector more frequently if:
  • Your alarm is getting older (older alarms are more prone to malfunction)
  • Your alarm regularly emits short beeps, or gives off false alarms
  • Your manufacturer's guide suggests frequent testing
  • Your alarm is in a kitchen where frequent smoke has caused it to activate more often, and therefore wear out faster.
Additionally, the type of smoke detector that you have installed may also impact the frequency of your checks. For instance, battery-operated smoke detectors will need frequent examination to check the condition of the battery. Although AC-powered smoke detectors are more dependable in the long-term, they usually also have an independent battery backup for operation during a blackout or an electrical fire, which needs frequent testing too.

Step 2: Remember Your Commitments as a Landlord or Business Owner

Some landlords and business owners mistakenly believe that they're not responsible for checking their smoke detectors and fire alarms for damage. However, when someone rents an apartment or house from you, you are responsible for providing a habitable living space, which includes working smoke alarms. Business owners, just like homeowners, will need to check their smoke alarms monthly. Landlords can ask their tenants to perform the same checks, but will need to make sure that the alarms are working at least twice a year to maintain safety. In homes and businesses with battery-powered alarms, it may be best to check the functioning of the alarm every 6 months, when you change out the battery.

Step 3: Know How to Perform a Comprehensive Test

Testing smoke detectors and fire alarms is easier than you think. In fact, it should only take you a couple of moments each month. Though you should check the manufacturer's requirements when examining your smoke alarms, you can often test them using the following instructions:
  • Inspect the smoke alarm visually to ensure that dust and debris aren't blocking the air entry points, and that there's no damage.
  • Hold and press the button on the smoke alarm, which should release a loud siren. If you do not hear the alarm, or the alarm sound is quiet, you may need to replace the batteries. If the alarm still doesn't work after a battery replacement, exchange the entire unit.
  • It may be a good idea to ask a family member to walk around the home while you're testing the alarm to ensure that it can be heard from every point in the property. The same technique can apply to business premises.
  • Make sure that the smoke alarm is working by presenting it with actual smoke. Though the button can test whether the batteries are working, placing 2 or 3 lighted matches underneath the unit can ascertain whether it's performing its primary function.

Step 4: Learn When to Replace Smoke Detectors and Fire Alarms

Besides knowing when to check your smoke detectors and fire alarms, it's also important to ensure that you know when to replace them. A survey conducted by the National Fire Protection Association found that 9 out of 10 Americans have no idea that they need to replace their alarms every 10 years. Following a period of 10 years, the sensors in your smoke alarms are often contaminated with dirt, dust, and pollutants. If your alarm is more than 10 years old, it will not be able to perform at its best, which makes a quick replacement essential.