Which smoke alarm should you buy – ionisation, optical or heat alarm? Find out how to choose the best smoke alarm for your home.
Good smoke detectors warn you early when there’s a real fire and give you time to escape, but shouldn’t go off every time you singe the fish fingers. As our smoke alarm buying video above explains, there are three types of alarm – including two varieties of smoke alarms and a heat alarm.
How much do you need to spend to buy a good smoke alarm?
Our tests of smoke alarms show that you don’t have to spend a fortune to get great value. You can buy an excellent Best Buy smoke alarm for under £20, and we’ve seen alarms that have failed our tests that cost much more.
Buying a pricier model may mean you’re getting extra features, such as a 10-year sealed battery, an emergency light or an alarm that can be linked wirelessly to others. Interlinked alarms all sound at the same time when danger is detected.
They will be a requirement in Scotland when the law changes in 2022 and can cost more than unlinked alarms, but it’s still possible for an affordable interlinked smoke alarm to be Best Buy.
What kind of smoke alarms and heat alarms will I need in Scotland when the law changes?
When the alarms law changes in Scotland, you’ll need to install interlinked heat and smoke alarms in your home. All of the major manufacturers (Aico, FireAngel and Kidde) make smoke and heat alarms that will work in combination with one another and we have tested pairs of smoke and heat alarms from each of them.
When buying interlinked smoke and heat alarms, look for deals on packs of alarms, including two or three smoke alarms and a heat alarm as this will help to keep costs down when upgrading the alarms in your home. In our reviews of interlinked alarms, we note which smoke alarms will work with which heat alarms.
What’s the best type of smoke alarm for my home?
Ionisation smoke alarms
Ionisation alarms ionise the air between two electrodes. These are positively and negatively charged, creating a small current inside the chamber. Smoke particles change the balance of the current.
When this happens a signal is sent to the integrated circuit and the alarm sounds.
These alarms are more sensitive to smaller particles of smoke produced by the flaming stage of fires than optical alarms, and more easily triggered by cooking – causing false alarms.
Pros: Can suit dustier areas, such as lofts, the area near your bathroom or rooms where people smoke.
Cons: They shouldn’t be placed too near to kitchens because of false alarms.
Optical smoke alarms
Optical (or photoelectric) alarms are light sensors. They contain an infra-red LED which, every few seconds, pulses a beam of light into the sensor chamber to check for smoke particles.
As smoke enters, the infrared light is scattered onto the photodiode light receptor, triggering an alarm. They detect the larger smoke particles from slower smouldering fires.
Pros: Good for bedrooms, landings and hallways, and near to kitchens as they aren’t as prone to false alarms from cooking.
Cons: Not so good for dusty areas, such as lofts, or steamy areas such as bathroom landings.
Interlinked smoke and heat alarms
Interlinked smoke alarms will use the same optical or ionisation technology mentioned above, so, they’re not a type of alarm in their own right.
Their distinguishing feature is the fact that they can be linked to other alarms, both heat and smoke alarms, so that when one senses danger they all sound. In Scotland, from February 2022, interlinked smoke and heat alarms will need to be fitted in all homes.
Pros: Every linked alarm sounding when smoke or rapid rises in heat are detected.
Cons: They tend to cost more than standalone alarms, so look for deals when you buy.
What are smart smoke alarms? Smart smoke alarms are designed to sound the alarm when they detect smoke, as a conventional smoke alarm would. But the unique selling point of a smart smoke alarm is the ability to send alerts to your phone when there’s a fire. This could be critical if you’re out when there’s a fire.
All of the smart smoke alarms we’ve tested are optical models. Some smart smoke alarms are much better than others at letting you know when there’s smoke around, both in terms of how quickly they detect smoke and the methods they use to let you know.
Some smart models sound an alarm on your smartphone and through the alarm itself when triggered – this is the most helpful kind of smart alarm. Others will sound the alarm through the alarm unit itself, but then send texts or emails to your phone, rather than sounding an alarm on your phone.
So if you’re out of your home and not near your phone when the messages come through, you’ll have no way of knowing the alarm was sounding. Pros: The best smart smoke alarms will trigger quickly and will sound the alarm on your phone, as well as through the alarm itself.
They will have easy-to-use apps and be straightforward to set up, maintain and use. Cons: The worst smart alarm we’ve seen isn’t really smart at all – it will send emails and texts to your phone when there’s smoke around, but it doesn’t sound the alarm through your phone. In one of our tests it was slow to sound and in others, one sample tested failed to detect any smoke at all.
Smart smoke alarms and data collection
An interesting by-product of the new breed of smart alarms is the fire-related data being collected, as is the case with Google, which makes the Nest Protect smoke and CO alarm. Google told us that it uses data from its alarms to provide ‘meaningful insights’ for its customers and to improve the product.
For example, Google said it developed a Steam Check feature, which ensures the alarm knows the difference between steam and smoke. This feature was developed from a combination of conventional lab testing and real data from the home.
UK smoke alarms are mostly likely to sound on pancake day, according to Google.
On a lighter note, Google’s data also revealed that the day when smoke alarms are most likely to sound in the UK is pancake day.
Is the Nest Protect smoke and CO alarm suitable for homes in Scotland when the law changes?
From February 2022, the Nest protect smoke and CO alarm will no longer meet the requirements of the new Scottish alarm laws. This is because, while it can be linked to other Nest alarms, it has no way of detecting heat rises or of being linked to another heat alarm.
If you own a Nest smoke and CO alarm, you will be able to continue to use it but it will need to be in addition to interlinked smoke and heat alarms. We spoke to Google about this who told us that any customers who purchased a Nest Protect smoke and CO alarm in the past three years who wish to return their device should contact our customer service team for a full refund.
What are the other types of safety alarm available for the home?
Heat (thermal) alarms detect heat (hot air) instead of smoke. The alarm is triggered when the temperature within the sensor chamber reaches over 58 degrees Celsius – generally when a fire is well established.
You can put them in kitchens and garages because they’re not prone to false alarms from cooking or exhaust fumes. But they are slower to respond than smoke alarms.
Heat alarms can be battery powered with replaceable batteries, they can come with sealed fixed-life batteries or they can be mains powered. Interlinked heat alarms can be used in combination with smoke alarms to trigger when one alarm in the circuit senses danger.
What battery should I put in my smoke alarm?
If you buy a battery-powered smoke alarm (rather than a mains-powered one), you’ll need to decide whether you want one with a replaceable 9V battery, or sealed fixed-life battery The latter are pricier when you buy for the first time, but you won’t have to factor in the expense of replacement battery costs. You should replace a 9V battery in your smoke alarm whenever you need to, or at least annually.
What additional features will you see when shopping for smoke alarms and heat alarms?
Mains-powered alarms offer peace of mind, as they don’t need batteries. They do need to be installed by a qualified electrician and come with a back-up 9V battery in case there is a power cut. Interlinking when one alarm goes off, all the connected detectors are activated.
This can be particularly useful in a larger house. Wireless devices communicate with each other and other devices without the use of connecting wires. This can be through interlinking by radio or through wi-fi. Strobes and vibration pads alert people with a hearing impairment in a fire.