Smoke detector shopping: What to look for when choosing a smoke detector

Free program in some cities will install detectors

BROOKLYN, Ohio - When you walk down the smoke alarm aisle, there are lots of claims that catch your eye.

In big bold letters the packaging says long-life battery, tamperproof and maximum protection. Our 5 On Your Side consumer investigation found it's the fine print you really need to pay attention to when buying a detector.

If you look along the crease or back of smoke alarm packaging, you typically find a warning about the different types of smoke alarm technology. Some manufacturers tell you to buy both an ionization and photoelectric detector for maximum protection from all types of fires.

Ionization alarms detect fast-flaming fires quicker and photoelectric detectors sense smoldering fires faster.

Chip Ambroz said he's never seen it until we pointed it out.

"They should probably make it bigger so you would know," Ambroz said.

Most consumers we spoke to had no idea there were different types of detectors.

In the majority of homes, there are ionization alarms. Ambroz just bought seven of them for one reason.

"They're the cheapest," Ambroz said.

Ambroz paid more attention to price because he thought all the words on the packaging were meaningless to his family's safety.

"I thought it was  marketing," Ambroz said.

Smoke detectors tested

In a 5 On Your Side consumer investigation, we put smoke detectors to the test. We bought ionization, photoelectric and dual-sensor alarms from the two leading manufacturers.

In a simulation of a smoldering fire, the photoelectric alarms sounded nine minutes faster than the ionization alarms. In government tests, the average time difference was 30 minutes.

That's why the Consumer Product Safety Commission, four fire safety groups and the manufacturers recommend both alarms for maximum protection.

Ohio Fire Marshal responds

Ohio Fire Marshal, Larry Flowers said any working smoke detector will save your life. Flowers said he believes too many people are dying in Ohio because they don't have working detectors. He said he also believes the government testing and our testing can't be the sole reason to switch alarms.

We asked Flowers if he thought ionization alarms give people enough time to escape.

"In most scenarios, yes. There are so many factors that take place. The contents of the room, where they are in the room, how easy it is to get out. There are so many conditions of the residence and conditions of the sleeping area and human conditions, and we believe in those cases it's true. There are so many various factors. Every fire is different. The first is different so we are not comfortable saying one is better than another," Flowers said.

Flowers recommends any alarm, and his office handed out  1,901 ionization alarms and 245 dual sensor alarms in the last year.

He's also asking fire investigators to collect better data that may provide more guidance on this issue. Flowers wants to know what type of alarm was in the home for fatal fires. It is only a suggestion at this point and not a directive.

"I can't force the local fire investigators to do anything. They work for those independent communities, but our message has been try to find out what kind of technology is in the house," Flowers said.

Right now, that message is being sent through word of mouth.

We asked if a memo is necessary.

"Absolutely. There is always ways to improve communication. We believe the word has gotten out. We have no direct authority over the local fire departments," Flowers said.

Communities & consumers respond

While many agencies recommend both types of alarms for maximum protection, some groups including the International Association of FireFighters, support only photoelectric alarms.

Many believe they lead to less false alarms. That's even on some of the packaging.

Several northeast Ohio communities also believe in that message and have ordinances requiring only photoelectric alarms.

The Northeastern Ohio Fire Protection Association, which has members from more than 100 northeast Ohio fire departments, recommends photoelectric alarms as well. The organization setup a website, Photoelectric Saves, to share its message.

We shared the details of our testing and investigation with some consumers, and they're making changes too.

"We are definitely going to get the other one to work together with the ones we already have," Ambroz said.

Carolyn Singel was also in the market to replace her old detectors.

"For a couple extra dollars, you get a lot better protection," Singel said. "We're going to buy the good ones."

Photoelectric detectors are typically a few dollars more expensive.

Decoding the packaging

Figuring out which alarm is which isn't easy.

You need to look for a "P" or the word photoelectric and the letter "I" or ionization. Sometimes the indication is on the bottom of the packaging and other times it's on the back. It comes in all different size fonts.

At stores like Lowes, just look at the shelf price tag. It's much easier than finding the type of alarm on some of the smoke detector packaging.

Free program installs detectors

If you need a detector installed, there is a free program that may be able to help. The American Red Cross launched Operation Save-A-Life to reduce the fire deaths in the Cleveland area back in 1992.

The American Red Cross teams up with local fire departments that actually install the alarm.

The following cities offer the program:

Cleveland: 216-361-5535
Cleveland Heights: 216-291-2291
Euclid: 216-289-8425
South Euclid: 216-691-4273

If you live in a different city and have questions or need help, stop by your local fire department.

For more on consumer trends, ripoffs, and money-saving tips follow Jenn on Facebook and Twitter.

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