Smart smoke safety buying guide

Use your smart home to add to your peace of mind with a device that sends you push alerts when your alarm sounds.

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Adding smarts to smoke detection can feel like walking a treacherous path. Old-fashioned smoke detectors have served as a fine warning system for a long time. Yes, between false alarms and low-battery chirping, they can be annoying, but for a service that essential, some annoyance is an easy trade. So tinkering with the established formula can feel like an unnecessarily risky move. And caution is needed, as we've seen plenty of unreliable smart home devices.

Yet, smart home smoke detection can add to your safety and peace of mind by sending you a remote notification when something goes wrong -- facilitating a faster call to emergency services when you're away from home.

As with the rest of the smart home, the difference between a frustrating smart home experience and one that can add convenience and help reduce danger comes down to picking the right device for you. We're here to help.

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Device Categories

The similarities between the following smoke safety devices start and end with one main function -- when your smoke alarm sounds, you'll get a push notification wherever you are. How they do this, what else they do, how much they cost and how many smoke alarms you can cover with a single device vary widely from category to category, and even within the categories themselves.

Here are the different types of devices you can use to alert you from afar when your smoke detector sounds.

1) Smart smoke detectors: The most obvious way to add smarts to your smoke detectors is to replace the device itself with an internet connected version. Led in popularity by the Nest Protect, your options include a First Alert smoke detector and upcoming options from Birdi and Halo Smart Labs.

Wholesale replacement is the most expensive and comprehensive solution. Expect to pay $100 dollars or more for each detector you want to swap, but you'll usually get conveniences like being able to silence false alarms from an app and push notification when the batteries are low so you don't have to deal with chirping. The Nest Protect and First Alert models we tested also included Carbon Monoxide detection.

2) Listeners: Plug one of these into your wall, and it'll listen for the specific frequency of smoke and CO detectors and send you an alert when it hears something. If you have a small home, you probably won't actually save much money with a listener. The US-only Leeo Smart Alert costs $50 (£35 and AU$65) and the US-only Kidde RemoteLync Monitor costs $100 (£70 and AU$130) -- as much as the Nest Protect -- though you can currently find a steep discount on Kidde on Amazon. The upcoming Smart Alarm Detector from D-Link will cost $60 (£40 and AU$75).

Since none of these devices talk directly to your smoke detectors, you won't get any help mitigating annoyances like false alarms or low battery chirps. You'll start to see the cost advantages of a listener if you have a big home and you want complete connected coverage, as a single device can cover upwards of a floor of your home. So instead of having to replace the smoke detector in every bedroom, you can put one listener in the hallway and be done with it.

3) Smart batteries: As of right now, you only have one option in this category, the Roost Smart Battery, but it's a compelling category nonetheless. Roost costs $35 (£25, AU$50), looks and acts like a 9V, connects to your Wi-Fi network, and sits in your smoke detector like any other battery. Except unlike a normal battery, you'll get a push notification when the smoke detector sounds and an alert when the 5 year battery starts running low (you can replace the battery part for $15/£10/AU$20). If your smoke detector only uses battery power, you can even silence your alarm with Roost, but you lose that function with hardwired alarms that use a battery backup.

Roost seems like a less permanent solution than the other two categories, but most smoke detectors are only rated to last for 10 years. You'll have to put a Roost into every smoke detector for complete coverage, so it's not as efficient at comprehensive smarts as a listener, but it's a more cost-effective route than wholesale replacement and neutralizes more inconveniences than listeners.

Smoke detectors

The Nest Protect (Second Generation)

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Asides from smarts, smoke detectors do the detecting part of their job with two tried and true methods detailed in this article on the science of smoke detectors. In short, the two types of smoke detectors are ionized and photoelectric. Ionized detectors are cheaper but more prone to false alarms than their photoelectric counterparts.

Both smart options we've tested, the Nest Protect and the First Alert OneLink Wi-Fi Smoke and CO Alarm, use photoelectric sensors. The more expensive sensor helps justify the cost of each -- $100/£89 for the Nest Protect and $110 (£75, AU$150) to $120 (£80, AU$165) for First Alert depending on whether you want a battery-powered or hardwired model.

The Nest Protect goes one step further than a simple photoelectric setup with a split-spectrum sensor that's supposedly better at detecting smoldering fires. If you're hesitant about smart smoke detection, you can at least rest assured that the basic functionality is the same as on non-smart detectors. And that was borne out in our testing. In terms of detecting smoke and sounding the alarm, both the First Alert and the Nest units were roughly as responsive as an ordinary Kidde smoke detector.

The smarts, however, were far from equal. The Second Generation Nest Protect sends you a push alert when the alarm sounds. You can also silence the alarm via the app. In theory, the First Alert Smoke Alarm should have similar functionality, but the push alerts were so slow and the app so unresponsive that they render the smarts nearly useless.

The upcoming Halo alarms will monitor the weather and integrate with the Lowe's Iris smart home system. Birdi's devices will monitor air quality as well as smoke and Carbon Monoxide. But if you want a smart smoke detector available today, the clear choice is the Nest Protect.

Listeners

The Leeo Smart Alert.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

If you want to cover more territory with a single device, the choice between gadgets that listen for smoke and CO alarms isn't as clear cut. Both options that we've tested, the Leeo Smart Alert and the Kidde RemoteLync Monitor, performed competently, but neither wowed us.

If you want a colorful night light attached to your listener, go with Leeo. Otherwise, Kidde does well as a simpler alternative. Or you could wait for the upcoming MydLink Smart Alarm Detector. Both Kidde and Leeo cover a single floor well enough, but if the D-Link Detector reliably reaches further than that it could be a great buy.

Alternatives

If a smart battery is your category of choice, you'll need to go with the Roost Smart Battery. That's a fine option, as Roost responded quickly to our alarms when we tested it. And again, it eliminates chirping.

The Roost Smart Battery.

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Or you could go a different route altogether, as a number of smart home sensors don't specifically detect fire or listen for alarms, but have temperature sensors and warning thresholds you could use to approximate the process. Your options include the $50 (£35, AU$60) Quirky Spotter, the $80/£70/AU$118 Elgato Eve Room and temperature sensors that work as part of larger smart home platforms like SmartThings, Insteon, and Lowe's Iris. I wouldn't recommend any of those as standalone smoke or fire safety devices, but they could work in tandem with a proper smoke detector.

Picking the right device for you

As with any other category in the smart home, I recommend starting small and building from there once you've found a device you like. Think about the size of your home when picking your device category for smart smoke detection. Having a plan in place can help you smoothly expand from a single device. But I'd still start with one, even if you decide on Roost or Nest Protect, which need multiple units for whole home coverage. Place it in your kitchen or a high traffic area and you'll get a good sense of how useful it is for you.

If your new safety device whets your appetite for the smart home, here's our buying guide for smart security and for smart locks.