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96% of US Homes Have Smoke Alarms. Are Yours in the Wrong Place?

Don't ignore that smoke detector on the wall. Here are the best places to install one for improved fire safety.

Cynthia Paez Bowman Contributor
Cynthia Paez Bowman is a finance, real estate and international business journalist. Besides Bankrate.com, her work has been featured in Business Jet Traveler, MSN, CheatSheet.com, Freshome.com and SimpleDollar.com. She owns and operates a small digital marketing and public relations firm that works with select startups and women-owned businesses to provide growth and visibility. Cynthia splits her time between Los Angeles, CA and San Sebastian, Spain. She travels to Africa and the Middle East regularly to consult with women's NGOs about small business development.
Cynthia Paez Bowman
5 min read
smoke detector on wall

Where you put your smoke detector matters. Here's what to know.

Chris Monroe/CNET

You probably ignore or even forget about your smoke detector unless you accidentally set it off while cooking and end up standing waving a towel around in annoyance. But in most regions, smoke detectors are legally required in residential settings -- and they can significantly improve outcomes in case of an actual fire. The question is, where is it best to mount smoke detectors to keep your property and loved ones safe in case of emergency, while also reducing those false alarms?

While you may have never given it much thought, there are actually ideal locations for your smoke detector. We've found the best places to put your smoke detectors that will maximize their effectiveness, as well as how to install and maintain a smoke detector and what to do if yours goes off. And for more safety tips, check out where you should put a carbon monoxide detector, our guide to preparing for natural disasters and how to recover important documents after a fire or other natural disaster.

How does a smoke detector work?

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Before we dive into where to put fire alarms, it's helpful to understand how smoke detectors work to reduce the risk of devastating fire damage and injuries. There are three types of smoke alarms: photoelectric, ionization and dual smoke detectors. 

A photoelectric detector measures light as it hits the sensor. These types of detectors are best at sensing smoky fires. An ionization detector detects when smoke enters the ionization chamber and the ionized smoke particles get neutralized. The drop in the electrical current will activate the alarm. Ionization detectors are more responsive to flaming fires. A dual-sensor smoke alarm is a combination of both. 

Where should smoke detectors be placed?

According to the National Fire Protection Association, the best place for smoke detectors are inside and outside every bedroom and on every level of your home, including the basement. Depending on the size of your home, you may need several smoke detectors. Dual-sensor smoke alarms throughout your interior would most effectively detect both types of early fires. 

Smoke rises, so mounting smoke detectors high -- usually on ceilings -- is the best option. If you choose to mount a smoke alarm on a wall, placing it less than 12 inches from the ceiling would be best. Find a spot away from air ducts, windows or anywhere with a draft that could keep smoke from reaching the detector. Interconnecting all smoke alarms will provide you with more thorough protection, too -- if one detector sounds, they all will.


You will likely need multiple smoke detectors throughout your home for added safety.

Chris Monroe/CNET

The kitchen

People generally avoid placing a smoke detector in the kitchen for fear of it going off during cooking. But a smoke detector is important in any kitchen simply because fires often start there -- even if you aren't around when they start. To minimize false alarms, detectors should be mounted at least 10 feet from the stove or oven. In a small kitchen, this may be difficult. Your only option may be to place the smoke detector just outside of the kitchen area 10 feet or more from the stove. 

Bedroom areas

Smoke detectors should be placed inside the bedroom and just outside the bedroom areas, such as in a hallway. If you don't have enough smoke detectors to place them everywhere, locate one outside the bedrooms in a spot where everyone sleeping could hear the alarm. As mentioned, interlinking wireless or wired smoke detectors helps solve the audibility problem. For example, if the smoke detector in the basement of a two-story home goes off in the middle of the night, interlinked smoke alarms will sound throughout the house, quickly alerting everyone who is sleeping upstairs. 


Don't forget to add a smoke detector in the basement. Interlinking is ideal to alert you if there's smoke in the basement. Otherwise, you may not hear the alarm until the fire spreads to other areas.

How to install a smoke detector

Battery-operated smoke detectors are some of the simplest home security devices to install. They typically come ready to go right out of the box -- all you need to do is mount it. You can follow the manufacturer's instructions for how to install your specific smoke detector, but generally, the steps are consistent.

1. Unpack the detector and read the documentation.
2. Install the battery or pull the protective tab out from the battery to activate the alarm.
3. Choose a draft-free spot on the ceiling or on a wall 12 inches from the ceiling. 
4. Attach the mounting bracket.
5. Connect the smoke detector.
6. Test the smoke detector by pressing the "Test" button. It should make a loud sound that can be easily heard in the general vicinity.

Wired smoke alarms may require an electrician who is able to make the connections and interlink them. 

Smoke detector maintenance

Smoke detectors don't require much maintenance other than to periodically check the battery or electrical connection. Make it a habit to test your detectors once per month by pressing on the test button to ensure the smoke alarm sounds. If you hear chirping, the detector's battery is probably low and should be replaced. Even if your alarm doesn't chirp, replace the batteries on all your smoke detectors once per year. 


If your smoke alarm is chirping, it may be time to switch the batteries.


Do smoke detectors need to be replaced?

If you properly maintain your smoke detector by replacing the battery annually, you won't normally need to replace the whole device. However, some smoke alarms come with a nonreplaceable battery installed. They typically last for 10 years. If the alarm on this type of model chirps, the battery is low and it's time to replace the smoke detector.

What to do if your smoke detector goes off

Understanding fire safety can make the difference between life and death. It's important that everyone in the family recognizes what the sound of the smoke alarm means and what to do. A fire alarm should always be taken seriously, even after several false alarms. Even small children can be taught what to do if a fire alarm goes off. 

A home safety plan can be vital so that everyone at home knows what to do in case of an emergency. Having an exit plan in case of fire including where everyone should meet outside of the home is essential.

Smoke detector false alerts happen. If you hear a smoke alarm, check for the source of the smoke before calling 911. A small grease fire in a pan, for example, can be easily extinguished. However, if there is heavy smoke or a fire you can't control, evacuate the home right away and call 911.

For more information about home safety, check out the best places to put your home security cameras, and the best cheap home security systems you can buy.

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