Not many people are aware that smoke detectors have to be replaced every 10 years

by: RON HALVORSON - While you should test your smoke alarms every Daylight Savings time, the whole device should be replaced every 10 years.

If you followed the advice of fire safety experts, you took last Sunday's time change as an opportunity to check your smoke alarms as well as to adjust your clocks.

You pressed the button and the alarm sounded. Check. You had power — either battery or hardwired (120-volt) — and the alarm blared as expected.

If you were a high achiever, you wafted some smoke into the unit to test the sensor. The alarm sounded. Check. The sensor worked.

You also checked the age of your alarm, didn't you?

That's right. Smoke alarms are designed to have a 10-year life-span. If they're older than that, they should be thrown away.

This was unsettling news to Crook County's building official, Lou Haehnlen.

"We had an inquiry from a realtor," Haehnlen explained of his recent revelation. "She found out that the smoke detectors are no good after 10 years. They say you're supposed to replace the batteries, but replacing the batteries doesn't work. It's the smoke detector that's the issue. We didn't know that. Nobody knew it. So we did a little checking on it, and sure enough, that's what the case was.

"We were just flabbergasted. We couldn't believe it."

A little digging on the State Fire Marshall's website — specifically, the smoke alarm FAQ page — proved the point.

"Single and multiple station smoke alarms installed in one- and two-family dwellings shall . . . not remain in service longer than 10-years from the date of manufacture,” read the answer to the question, “How often do I replace my smoke alarm?”

It’s more than just a recommendation. It’s a direct quote from the Oregon Fire Code 2007 addition that was adopted from the National Fire Protection Association’s National Fire Alarm Code.

“Smoke alarms in residential homes, they’re a 10-year device,” said Casey Kump, Deputy Chief with Crook County Fire and Rescue. “That’s pretty much how they’re manufactured. Sometimes they last longer, and sometimes they’re shorter. That’s the general assumption — after 10 years they should be replaced.”

Kump explained how to “age” a smoke alarm.

“When you pull them out of the holding fixture, you look on the back, and there’s a sticker that has a date when they were manufactured.”

This is true for newer smoke alarms, but not so much for older. An examination of some older models showed they had neither the manufacture date nor an admonition to replace the unit after 10 years. The replacement age was addressed in the manual, although it was hidden in the midst of other important information and warnings.

The 10-year replacement schedule applies equally to battery and hardwired units. It’s even stricter for carbon monoxide alarms — they should be replaced every five years.

“Like Lou found out,” Kump said, “most people just don't realize it. What we’ve found is they’ll just start to malfunction, and so usually we get the phone call after someone’s replaced the batteries in them already, and has tried to reset them. Typically, people don’t have the manufacturer’s instructions with the smoke alarms. Besides making sure that the power supply is good, and the battery’s new, they just need to be replaced.

“With Oregon, any one that you buy has the long-year lithium battery, so it’s supposed to be a 10-year battery with the smoke alarm. The main thing is that people just test them, monthly at least, to make sure they’re working OK, but the battery’s supposed to last the life of the smoke alarm.”

More recently, manufacturers have come up with units that are sealed. The batteries can’t be replaced, and at the end of 10 years, you simply buy a new one.

Kump said most hardwired units can be replaced by the homeowner, especially if the same brand is purchased. If not, they’ll usually come with a pigtail adaptor that will plug into what’s already installed. If any wiring is needed, an electrician should be involved.

“I’ve been doing this for 35 years,” said Haehnlen of his experience in the world of building construction, inspection, and enforcement. “I’ve been here for 10 years, and none of my guys had ever heard of that.

“The thing that kind of bothers me is, nobody knows about this, and if 10 years down the road, somebody dies in their house, and the smoke detector doesn’t work, whose fault is that? It could be a real safety factor. We try to tell people now, ‘Be aware you need to replace those every 10 years. Not just the batteries, the whole smoke detector.’”

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