Smoke alarm reviews

We test 15 battery-powered smoke alarms, including photoelectric, ionisation and dual-sensor models.
 
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01 .Introduction

We test 15 battery-powered smoke alarms, priced from $9 to $80

Smoke alarms come in two main types: ionisation or photoelectric. It’s been known for many years that photoelectric smoke alarms usually respond faster to smouldering fires, while ionisation alarms respond faster to flaming fires. Our test of 15 battery-powered smoke alarms, including photoelectric, ionisation and dual-sensor models, confirms there are major performance differences between the two types of sensor, even though all the smoke alarms tested meet the Australian Standard.

See our free smoke alarms buying guide for detailed information including types of alarms, how to install and maintain them, and other fire safety tips.

Watch our video for a quick explanation of the two types of smoke alarm and how they work:

Video: What to look for - smoke alarms

Manufacturers aren't always clear about the capabilities of their smoke alarms. Chris Barnes tells us what to look for.

Brands tested

Ionisation

  • Brooks PFS100TY
  • Family Gard FG888DCAUS
  • Fire Sentry SS168
  • HPM D45/2
  • Kidde 0915CAUS Bedroom
  • Lifesaver 1925
  • Quell SA702
  • Wormald WRS109MK2 twin pack

Photoelectric

  • Brooks PFS3105TYCH
  • Fire Smart FS0916
  • First Alert SA710CNAUS
  • Quell SA1000
  • Wormald WRS001PH

Dual sensor (with both ionisation and photoelectric sensors)

  • First Alert SA302CNAUS Ultimate Dual Sensor
  • Kidde PI9000 Dual Sensor
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The following models scored the best results in our test.

What to buy
Brand Price
First Alert SA302CNAUS Ultimate Dual Sensor $65
Kidde PI9000 Dual Sensor $80
First Alert SA710CNAUS (photoelectric) $30


Smoke Alarms
Brand / model (in rank order)Overall score (%)Smouldering score (%)Flaming score (%)Ease of use (%)Hush buttonInterconnectableOtherTypePrice ($)
Recommended
First Alert SA302CNAUS Ultimate Dual Sensor
www.altamonte.com.au
86 87 90 60 yes no Remote controlled silence/test Dual 65
Kidde PI9000 Dual Sensor
www.kidde.com.au
84 97 77 60 yes no   Dual 80
First Alert SA710CNAUS
www.altamonte.com.au
83 93 78 60 no no   Photoelectric 30
Worth considering
Fire Smart FS0916
www.chubb.com.au
77 94 69 40 no no   Photoelectric 18
Family Gard FG888DCAUS
www.masterdistributors.com.au
76 66 87 70 no no   Ionisation 15
Brooks PFS3105TYCH
www.brooks.com.au
76 84 62 100 no yes 10-year lithium battery Photoelectric 76
Quell SA1000
www.quell.com.au
76 86 75 40 no no   Photoelectric 30
Wormald WRS001PH
www.wormald.com.au
68 72 71 40 no no   Photoelectric 34
Not recommended
Lifesaver 1925
www.psaproducts.com.au
57 22 85 90 no no   Ionisation 27
Brooks PFS100TY
www.brooks.com.au
52 19 75 100 yes yes 10-year lithium battery Ionisation 58
HPM D45/2
www.hpm.com.au
52 26 74 70 no no   Ionisation 30
Kidde 0915CAUS Bedroom
www.kidde.com.au
50 10 80 90 no no   Ionisation 22
Wormald WRS109MK2 twin pack
www.wormald.com.au
46 3 77 100 no no   Ionisation 20
Fire Sentry SS168
www.masterdistributors.com.au
45 8 78 60 no no   Ionisation 9
Quell SA702
www.quell.com.au
43 3 79 60 yes no Exit light Ionisation 33

Table notes

# Discontinued model.

Recommended These models quickly detect smouldering fires, typically when the smoke obscuration is only 7% or less, and are also fast at detecting flaming fires. The dual sensor models contain both ionisation and photoelectric sensors.

Worth considering These models are all activate while the amount of smoke is fairly low, although not as consistently well as the recommended models. The Family Gard FG888DCAUS is the only ionisation model worth considering as it detected smouldering fires fast enough in most cases, but not as fast as the photoelectrics. If you buy this model, also install at least one photoelectric alarm for peace of mind.

Not recommended These models are not recommended due to their relatively poor performance in smouldering fires. If you only have one smoke alarm in your home, these (or any other ionisation model) should not be your first choice. However, if you have photoelectric alarms installed and want an additional safeguard against fast-flaming fires, these models are suitable.

Using the table

Scores The overall score is made up of:

  • Smouldering fire score: 45%
  • Flaming fire score: 45%
  • Ease of use: 10%

The smouldering and flaming fire scores are based on the level of smoke obscuration at the time the alarm activated. The heavier the smoke obscuration, the lower the score. If the obscuration was 50% (very thick smoke), the alarm scored zero. High scores in either of these tests indicate the alarm activated when the smoke was still very light; visibility would be very good in these cases and you'd be able to easily find your way out of the house, or even have time to fight the fire if it was safe to do so.  

Features See What to look for for details.

Price Recommended retail as at February 2010. 

How we test

The smoke alarms are tested by an expert fire laboratory. A fire is started in a room with a smoke alarm positioned on the ceiling of an adjacent hallway, connected by an open doorway. The temperature, time of activation and level of smoke obscuration in the hallway are electronically logged.

Smoke obscuration is the key factor. Obscuration of 100% per metre means only one metre of visibility; you’d barely see your outstretched hand. The Australian Standard for smoke alarms requires photoelectric alarms to activate before obscuration gets worse than 20% per metre. Performance criteria for ionisation alarms are different.

We test with two types of fires:

  • Flaming fires Dry timber is set alight, producing flames quickly but initially with relatively little smoke.
  • Smouldering fires Polyurethane foam (commonly used in furniture) is placed over a hot soldering iron. Such fires can smoulder for a long time, gradually producing more and more smoke, before bursting into flames. If these fires occur at night, you can inhale their toxic smoke while sleeping, which makes waking – and escape – more difficult. Smoke inhalation is a major cause of death in fatal household fires.

Ease of use Our tester also assesses how easy it is to push each alarm’s test button, including the force required, how long the test takes to activate, and whether the button can be easily pressed with a broom handle (important if the alarm is mounted on a ceiling).

Susceptibility to nuisance alarms Even though this is a common complaint about smoke alarms, it’s difficult to test this properly so we reluctantly excluded this aspect from testing. Ionisation models are generally more prone to nuisance alarms than photoelectrics, particularly from cooking fumes. Steam can also cause nuisance alarms. 

CHOICE verdict

Photoelectric and dual sensor alarms are the best all-round performers. All the alarms tested respond fast enough to flaming fires, so our recommendations are based on their responses to smouldering fires. In this test, the dual sensor and photoelectric models clearly outperform the ionisation models. Most of the ionisation models are a little faster at detecting flaming fires, but not enough to outweigh their poor performance in smouldering fires.

There are many more models of smoke alarm on the market than we were able to test. But whichever you choose, make sure at least some are photoelectric or dual sensor models.

  • Standards Australia certification or ActivFire registration ensures the alarm complies with AS 3786. See Australian Standard for smoke alarms for more details.
  • 10-year lithium battery Some models come with a pre-installed 10-year lithium battery. This eliminates the need to replace the battery every year, since the lithium battery will last for the life of the smoke alarm. The Brooks alarms in this test have 10-year lithium batteries.
  • Test button This allows you to check the alarm is working. All the models in this test have one. Some models allow you to test by simply shining a torch on the alarm, eliminating the need to climb a ladder or reach up with a broom handle. The First Alert SA302CNAUS Ultimate Dual Sensor can be tested using most household remote controls, such as the remote for a TV.
  • Hush button Pressing this button silences false alarms for a few minutes — handy if you’ve burnt the toast and set off the alarm. The Kidde PI9000 Dual Sensor, Brooks PFS100TY and Quell SA702 have hush buttons; the First Alert SA302CNAUS Ultimate Dual Sensor can be silenced with a remote control.
  • Battery test Battery-powered models should monitor their own battery level and warn you when the battery needs changing by beeping every few seconds. All the tested models have this feature.
  • Escape light Some models have a light built in that turns on when the alarm is activated. This is helpful if there’s a power failure during a fire, as it can guide you out of the house. The Quell SA702 has this feature.
  • Interconnection Most mains-powered and some battery-powered alarms can be connected to each other, so that if one goes off, so do the rest. The Brooks alarms in this test are interconnectable, though this requires wiring.
  • For people with a hearing problem there are special products available, such ultraloud alarms, strobe lights and vibrating pads for your bed. For details, contact your state’s Deaf Society, Independent Living Centre or fire brigade.

04.Australian Standard for smoke alarms

 

The Australian standard for smoke alarms, AS 3786, covers both photoelectric and ionisation alarms. The CSIRO maintains the ActivFire register, which lists fire safety equipment that has been certified to the appropriate standards, including smoke alarms. Smoke alarm packaging will indicate if the product has been certified (alternatively, it might state the product is listed in the ActivFire register, which effectively means the same thing), but if you aren't sure if a particular alarm has been certified, you can look it up in the online ActivFire register.

All the alarms in this test are certified to the standard. Why then do they perform differently? It's because the Australian standard has different pass criteria for photoelectric and ionisation alarms.

  • Photoelectric alarms must reliably activate, on average, when the smoke obscuration is between 3% and 20% per metre. 20% per metre is considered the maximum safe level of smoke. Therefore, a photoelectric alarm certified to the standard can be expected to give early warning of a smoky or smouldering fire. This is consistent with our test results.
  • The pass criteria for ionisation alarms are not based on smoke obscuration. They are instead based on the MIC 'X" value, which is a measure of the level of small particles typically given off in a fast-flaming fire. An ionisation alarm certified to the standard can be expected to quickly detect flaming fire situations. However, these particular particles occur in comparatively low quantities in smoky, smouldering fires. So in a smouldering fire situation, by the time the MIC 'X" level has built up enough to activate an ionisation alarm, the level of actual smoke can be dangerously high.

In recent years there has been some debate whether the standard should be modified to require a uniform set of pass criteria for all types of alarm, regardless of their detector technology, based on smoke obscuration levels. A counter argument is that in certain special scenarios, such as in fuel storage depots where fast flaming fires are a particular hazard, ionisation alarms are the most appropriate type and the current standard is the best test for this type. Another argument is that the standard does not need changing, but that the Australian Building Code should mandate the use of photoelectric smoke alarms for homes.

Regardless of this, there is a broad consensus of opinion between fire authorities and industry experts that photoelectric alarms are a must-have item for homes. This is because toxic smoke and fumes are a major risk. In a house fire, it’s the flames that do the structural damage, but smoke is the main danger to people. The majority of deaths in fires come from smoke inhalation/poisoning. Modern homes contain a lot of materials — such as wood, wool, nylon and plastics — which, when burning, give out heavy smoke and toxic fumes such as carbon monoxide and cyanide gas. These materials can smoulder for a long time, putting out a lot of smoke and fumes before they burst into actual flames. If you’re asleep when the fire starts, you could suffer from smoke inhalation before you wake up; in fact, the combination of toxic smoke and reduced oxygen in the air can make waking up more difficult. So it’s important to have an alarm that rapidly detects smoke.

Photoelectric alarms are the best type for early detection of smouldering fires, and are fast enough at detecting flaming fires too. Ionisation alarms can be a useful additional line of fire protection, but should not be the only type you have in your home.

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