Smoke detectors are among the most important security devices for your home. You never know when you’ll need them, but when you do, they will literally save your life.
According to the National Fire Protection Association, the winter months are when homes are at higher risk of fire-involved accidents, driven by an influx of candles, holiday decorations and your furnace running nonstop.
The larger your home, the more smoke detectors you will likely need, and the NFPA recommends that you install one on every floor, in each sleeping area, at the top of each stairway and stairway-adjacent ceiling if you’re in a basement. After putting six smoke detectors to the test, we found the top three that we’d recommend if you’re shopping for a new unit, or if you want to replace your old one.
How we test smoke detectors
When it comes to detecting smoke, time is of the essence. That is why we designed a test that simulates a real-life emergency.
The first thing to know is that there are two main types of fires that these products are designed for: smoldering fires and flaming fires.
A smoldering (or slow-burning) fire refers to the combustion that occurs at the surface of a solid material. Smoldering fires produce large amounts of thick smoke but can’t sustain a flame. Think of a cigarette slowly burning but never actually bursting into flames.
A smoldering fire can and will become a flaming fire if proper action is not taken immediately.
Flaming fires are the ones we’re more familiar with, and they usually arise from the ignition of any flammable material, such as a flammable substance, wood, paper, etc. These generally produce less smoke than a smoldering fire but are obviously more destructive.
We built a chamber that houses the smoke detector under test and fed to it the two different types of smoke through a chimney. Then, we timed the quickness of the response. The faster the smoke detectors’ alarm was triggered, the better.
To simulate smoke coming from a smoldering fire, I ignited 300g of charcoal and let it heat up for 10 minutes before feeding the smoke. I wanted to make sure most of the coals were ignited and that the smoke was thick enough to trigger the alarm.
Recreating a flaming fire was easy, just 30g of shredded paper did the trick. Again, I ensured a significant amount of smoke was present before feeding it through the chimney and into the chamber.
To the great discomfort of my neighbors, who had to endure smoke alarms going off randomly, and to whom I sincerely apologize, I repeated the whole process three times per smoke detector model under test and per type of smoke, totaling six test runs per smoke detector. Finally, I averaged the response times. You can check them out in the chart below:
Other smoke detectors we’ve tested
First Alert SA320 Dual Sensor Smoke Detector: Ranked third in both tests, a solid option at an affordable price. The silence/test button is stiffer than most other models, which can be a pain if you’re trying to hush a false alarm or conduct a weekly test.
Kidde Firex PI2010 Hard-Wired Dual Sensor Smoke Detector: Lowest overall performance detecting a slow-smoldering fire, taking 83 seconds. Second-lowest performance detecting a fast-flaming fire, in 27.9 seconds. The device needs to be hard-wired, but it comes with a 9-volt battery as backup.
Onelink Battery Powered Smart Smoke and Carbon Monoxide Detector by First Alert: This model looked great at first. App-controlled, useful smart features, and it can be paired up with other smart home security devices, making it a strong contender for best for smart home. However, it did not impress us in the smoke detection test. It had the lowest performance detecting a fast-flaming fire and second-lowest performance detecting a slow-smoldering fire, taking almost twice as long as the Nest.