When you buy a smoke detector, you assume it will sound quickly in a fire, giving you plenty of time to escape.
But some experts warn that's not always true. In fact, the most common type of smoke detector may not go off in time, even when surrounded by thick, toxic smoke, giving little warning to get your family out.
Dr. B. Don Russell, the Harry E. Bovay, Jr. Endowed Chair Professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Texas A&M University, discussed inadequacies in smoke detectors during a segment of The Today Show Oct. 3.
Russell said that the most common smoke detectors owned by 90 percent of households are ionization alarms, which detect small particle smoke from flames but not the deadly smoldering fires that produce a lot of smoke. In those fires ionization alarms don't work well, going off way too late — or not at all.
“And that means the individuals could have a fire in their home and never receive a warning,” said Russell, who has run hundreds of tests on smoke alarms during his research.
He added that while it is “reasonable” for a consumer to assume that a smoke detector will sound when there's smoke, it’s a wrong assumption to make. “It's very scary and that's why people die every year because of this problem.”
During his segment on the show, Russell showed an experiment where firefighters set a slow smoldering fire. Despite the room filling with smoke, it took three ionization smoke detectors more than 35 minutes to go off.
“It's way too late, it's too dangerous," he said. "You couldn't get out of that room reliably."
Russell said there's another type of smoke detector that gives a better warning in those fires called a photoelectric detector, and even government tests show it goes off much sooner in smoky fires. Another test was set up during the segment that included a photoelectric detector, which went off in 17 minutes, 21 minutes before any ionization detectors went off.
Russell said that while the leading smoke detector companies do make photoelectric alarms, they still sell most of their products without the technology because of the cost and because they meet with current government standards.
So far, three states have changed their laws to require photoelectric technology in new homes and Russell hopes this will continue as more people become aware of the inadequacies of the most common detector. He believes the best way to detect all types of fires is to have both the ionization and photoelectric detectors or a dual detector that’s a combination of both.
Fire safety experts say that to have the best protection, install the smoke alarms on every level of the home, outside sleeping areas and inside bedrooms. It's also important to make sure the batteries are working and test them about once a month, and replace the batteries at least once a year.
Russell is a nationally recognized electric power engineer and a member of the National Academy of Engineering (NAE). His specialty is the automation, control and protection of power systems.
Other honors for Russell include being named a University Distinguished Professor, being named a fellow of the National Academy of Forensic Engineers and being elected chair of the NAE Electric Power and Energy section. He is past president of the IEEE Power and Energy society.
Russell is a Fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and Fellow of the Institute of Electrical Engineers of England. He also is a Fellow of the National Society of Professional Engineers.
Russell previously held the J.W. Runyon Professorship in the department and is a Regents Professor. He is a recipient of the University Faculty Distinguished Achievement Award in research and formerly served as executive associate dean of the Dwight Look College of Engineering, associate vice chancellor for engineering for The Texas A&M University System, and deputy director of the Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station.
Watch the entire segment from The Today Show online.
Contributed by Jeff Rossen and Avni Patel