Smoke Alarms – A Home Inspector’s Perspective

Smoke Alarms – A Home Inspector’s Perspective

During a home inspection, a home inspector observes 300 to 500 items or more. Under certain conditions, the home inspector will find many of those items to be unsafe. For example, things like electrical and HVAC systems and kitchen and laundry appliances can start a fire. Should a fire start, the building’s smoke alarms should warn the occupants. In this post, I’ll offer my perspective on smoke alarms – NOT smoke detectors. THEY ARE NOT THE SAME.

A detector has a built-in smoke sensor. If the device detects smoke, it sends a signal to a control panel that triggers an external siren, strobe light, or other warning system. Typically, you’ll find smoke detectors in condo buildings, hotels and commercial buildings.

Smoke alarms are self-contained smoke sensing devices. They include a built-in power supply and alarm. With few exceptions you will find smoke alarms in single- and multi-family residences.

Types of Smoke Alarms

Manufacturers offer variations on two basic types of smoke alarm: ionization and photoelectric. You’ll find both types in hard-wired, battery-operated, plug-in, wireless, or combination versions.

What’s the difference?

Ionization Alarms were developed in the 1970’s. They notoriously go off when you’re cooking or showering. They work well for blazing fires but not so well with smoldering smoke.

Photoelectric Alarms are good for smoldering fires but not so good with blazing fires.

So which one should you chose?

That is a great question. The National Fire Prevention Association (NFPA) recommends using both types. If you have to choose, I recommend photoelectric smoke alarms. Smoke and not fire causes most fire-related deaths in the US. Usually, you can find the type of alarm printed on the back of the device. If you don’t seen the type listed, you can presume it is ionization.

History of Smoke Alarms

The Illinois Smoke Detector Act took effect on January 1, 1988. The act applied to new construction and existing structures. It required single-family and multi-family residences and hotels to have an approved, operational smoke alarm on every floor. This included basements but excluded crawl spaces and non-occupied attics. Smoke alarms also had to be placed within 15 feet of any room used for sleeping. New construction had to have hardwired alarms.If there were two or more alarms, they had to be interconnected. Existing buildings could have battery-operated, plug-in, or hardwired alarms.

At some point, municipalities also added code requirements stating that new construction or renovated houses had to have smoke detectors inside every room used for sleeping. In 2011, they amended the act for new construction. All the requirements remained the same except the you had to have a battery or generator back up.

Inoperative Smoke Alarms

In a 2019 NFPA report, Smoke Alarms in U.S. Home Fires. nearly 43% of the homes involved in fires had smoke alarms with missing or disconnected batteries. Dead batteries caused 25% of smoke alarm failures. Statistics like these drove manufactures to improve battery technology.

This new battery technology spurred another amendment, which will take effect January 1, 2023. At that point, every single-family, multi-family, and hotel structure will have to replace removable battery alarms (non-hardwired alarms) with 10-year, sealed battery smoke alarms. Hardwired or wireless alarms with removal batteries will be excluded.

Testing and Replacing Alarms

Manufacturers recommend that alarms be tested every month by pressing the test button. The problem is that this only tests the battery and alarm. It gives you a false sense of security because it does not test the smoke sensor. You can use a UL approved can of smoke to test the smoke sensor. I have known people to use a match for testing, but some manufacturers don’t recommend it.

Manufacturers usually recommend that you replace your smoke alarms when they’re 10 years old. The smoke sensors are considered to be unreliable after that point. Since is no date on your alarm, presume it is more than 10 years old and replace it. If the smoke alarm’s casing has a yellowish hue, it’s likely that the alarm is around 10 years old. Best practice? Replace the alarm with one from the same manufacturer. The quick connect wiring harness will match and connect easily.

When you replace your smoke alarms, throw photoelectric alarms out with your regular garbage. However, ionization alarms contain very minute radioactive particles. Your best bet: Contact the alarm’s manufacturer to see whether they’ll take it back for recycling. You can also contact local city or county to find a hazmat disposal location.

False Alarms

False alarms have a variety of causes. Most most of the time, the problem is the alarm’s location. If you locate your smoke alarm near your stove, shower or a window, particles from cooking food, humidity, or steam can set off the alarm. Other reasons include insect intrusion or dust. In these cases, follow the manufacturer’s maintenance and cleaning instructions.


Smoke alarms save lives. Make sure you install them correctly and keep them in proper working order. It’s one of the best things you can do to keep your family and home are safe from fires.

In my next post, I’ll give you a home inspector’s perspective on a similar device – carbon monoxide detectors. Follow us on Facebook to get notified about new blog posts and other 3-D Home Inspection happenings.

A Home Inspector’s Perspective on Home Maintenance

A Home Inspector’s Perspective on Home Maintenance

I have been a home inspector in Illinois, mostly in the Chicagoland western suburbs, for over 15 years. That experience gives me a unique perspective on homeowners and their home maintenance habits. It doesn’t matter whether the house is in Aurora, St. Charles, Naperville, Plainfield, Oswego, or any other town, homeowners defer maintenance. It’s the norm –  those whose house is well-kept are the exception. This doesn’t mean the house is in total disarray. It just needs minor to moderate upkeep.

Why Don’t Homeowners Maintain Their Homes?

This lack of maintenance can be due to costs, not knowing what needs to be done, forgetfulness, or a variety of other reasons. I’m not being judgmental. I have found myself in this situation at times. However, routine maintenance is very important for economics, property value, and safety.

Why Should Homeowners Keep Up with Home Maintenance?

  • In general, being proactive with home maintenance is less costly than being reactive when something breaks.
  • Property values usually remain steady.
  • A well-maintained house presents itself better when it is on the market to sell.
  • A well-kept house can give you a sense of pride and accomplishment.

How Can Lack of Maintenance Impact My Home Inspection?

A home inspection includes the roof, exterior, interior, HVAC, plumbing, electric, insulation & ventilation, structure, and gas burning appliances. During an inspection, a home inspector is checking for significantly deficient systems and components. (The Illinois Home Inspection Act defines Significantly Deficient as not functioning or unsafe.) Systems and components may be functioning but still in need of servicing and maintenance.

When it comes to being unsafe, each of the areas have their own hazards. Hazards from trips and falls, shocks/electrocution, cross contamination, flooding, carbon monoxide poisoning, and fires are all safety concerns. Good home maintenance habits can prevent some of these hazards.

A Home Inspector’s Perspective

In upcoming posts, I’ll give you a home inspector’s perspective on the safety hazards for the various systems and components I inspect. Next week I’ll discuss smoke alarms, commonly called smoke detectors. By the way, alarms and detectors are not the same. You’ll find out why in my next post.

3 Minutes on Thursday with 3-D

3 Minutes on Thursday with 3-D

The purpose of a home inspection is to evaluate the function and safety of a home’s systems and components.  In most homes, a home inspector will look at 300 to 500 items.

During this Oswego home inspection, the water temperature was found to be 150 degrees Fahrenheit. This is scalding hot water that can burn a person in a matter of seconds.  The fix is simple:  turn down the water temperature on the water heaters control valve to the manufacturer’s recommendation, which typically is 120 degrees Fahrenheit.

3 Minutes on Thursday with 3-D

3 Minutes on Thursday with 3-D


While at a home inspection in St. Charles, I noticed water running out of the extension pipe of the water heater’s Temperature Pressure Relief (TPR) valve.  TPR valves are design to release water from the water heater if the temperature exceeds a certain temperature or if pressure in the plumbing pipes exceeds a certain level.


As water temperature rises, water expands.  As water expands it has to go somewhere.  The pipes are already full when the water isn’t heated so what happens to this excess water?  In older homes the water would be pushed back into the supply pipes from the city.  However, cities don’t like this as there is the chance that this pushed back water is contaminated.  For many years, cities have required back flow preventers to be installed at the water meter to stop this excess water from going back into their supply lines.

Therefore, expansion tanks are now installed, typically at the water heater, that absorb the excess water when there is a demand for hot water.  In this particular situation, it’s not that the water temperature exceeded a certain level but that the expansion tank is sagging and most likely waterlogged, making it incapable of absorbing the water.  The expansion tank needs to be either bled or replaced.  Many homeowners see that the TPR valve is leaking and figure it’s faulty when, in fact, it is doing its job. Whenever the TPR valve is leaking, its recommended a plumber be called to diagnose the problem and make the appropriate correction.

3 Minutes on Thursday with 3-D

3 Minutes on Thursday with 3-D


During a recent Yorkville home inspection, a boot for the HVAC supply register wasn’t connected to the PVC duct in the concrete floor. An opening in the PVC duct was never cut by the builder to attach the boot.  This can negatively affect the comfort level in this room.




I would bet the first home owner never had a new construction home inspection.

3 Minutes on Thursday with 3-D

3 Minutes on Thursday with 3-D


During a home inspection in Aurora, the condensate drain tube for the air conditioner was terminated directly into the waste stack of the plumbing system. This can allow sewer gases to enter the tube, making its way into the HVAC system, and subsequently spread into the house through the duct system.



Obviously, sewer gases can be a health problem. Drain lines are typically terminated above a floor drain.


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