Column #878 1/07/12
On The Level
That is the neighborhood where I grew up and as a teenager I was the kid the neighbors would call for everything from babysitting rambunctious boys to cleaning gutters or painting garages. I’d worked on that house a number of times and knew it well. The people who were in it Christmas were new owners so I didn’t know them but that doesn’t matter. The neighbor who called the alarm in and I went to high school together. The house was under a remodel and had no working smoke alarms and the cause was improperly disposed fireplace ashes.
The Stamford Fire Dept. is no stranger to Shippan Point-- named after the Good Ship Anne which wrecked there long ago. Sailing ships used to water there from a natural spring that still runs the sweetest spring water you’ll ever taste. Most of the houses there were built between 1900 and 1930 and the AP wire service described it as a “tony” neighborhood. Fires there tended to come in the dead of winter and at night-- usually having to do with heating systems, fireplaces or wiring, Our house-- built in 1928-- had two visits from the fire department while I was there, fortunately without great damage or injury. We saw many places burn, including the next door neighbor’s, but no one got hurt.
I bristle at the term “tony” to describe the place. The houses are substantial to more than substantial and all well kept. The people there aren’t flashy. No Bentleys or vanity tags. In fact, most cars down there were like my Dad’s-- an underpowered six cylinder Chevy wagon that couldn’t get out of its own way. And I didn’t know anybody who got there with a silver spoon in their mouth. They worked hard for they have. Our house in its 84 year life has only had three owners. We were the second.
You could see New York City from the end of our street and that’s why I worked so hard. When I got a few bucks ahead I went to Manhattan-- and took a date.
A retired firefighter I know who could see how distressed I am over this loss has counseled me to go up there and visit the site. It’s too early yet.Q. I’d appreciate your opinion on the following question. Should we replace our smoke and CO detectors every 5 years regardless of their operating condition? We have 3 smoke detectors (kitchen hallway, foyer, and upstairs hallway)as well as a CO detector in our basement near our gas furnace and gas water heater. The smoke detectors are battery powered and probably 30 years old (they are the “ionization” type). Up to now, I have simply changed the batteries when a unit starts to give its low battery“chirp”. After putting in a new battery I then push the test button and the unit sounds the alarm. I have thought this was adequate “maintenance”. The CO detector in the basement is AC powered, probably 20 years old, and has a green pilot light which stays lit.
Occasionally, I push its test button, and it sounds its alarm. Again I thought this was proper “maintenance”. Recently, my neighbor has advised me that a hardware clerk advised her that smoke and CO detectors should be replaced, regardless of operating condition, every 5 years. Is this correct, or it is an attempt on the part of the smoke detector/CO detector industry make more sales?
A. I take both fire and Carbon Monoxide danger very seriously--as I hope you can tell-- and you are in grave danger. I don’t know where I learned this-- at some home inspector conference or something-- but I was told that 3% of smoke alarms (back then) were bad out of the box new, and 30% were bad at age 10 and by the time they got to be age 20 they were almost all bad. You can replace all the batteries you want and push the test button and listen to it scream but that doesn’t mean they will sound when confronted with smoke.
Any smoke detector over age 10 I recommend replacing. People ask me why I don’t test smoke detectors by pushing the button. I tell them I assume they may not work which is why the building code has you install multiple smoke alarms that are interconnected so if one goes off they all sound.
You described the placement of smoke alarms in your house which gives me a clue as to the age of the house-- that 30 year old alarm is probably original equipment. Now they require one in every sleeping space along with where you’ve got yours. They learned that if you’re sleeping in a bedroom with the door closed and a fire starts in the bedroom, you’re not likely to survive to hear the one in the hall go off.
As for your CO detector-- at its age it’s probably useless. Just because its little green light is lit only tells you it’s plugged in and the power is on. And since a very small-- relatively speaking-- amount of CO will do you harm I tell folks to put the detector in the master bedroom because if you are going to die from CO poisoning you will likely do it your sleep. If you are awake and start to present CO poisoning symptoms you do something about it-- like go to the Emergency Room.
I don’t own stock in nor do I get a kick back of any sort but I am sold on the concept of a monitored security system which has both fire alarm and CO detection features. If the system senses something it calls your house. If you don’t answer then they call the first responders. It’s the cheapest life insurance you’ll ever buy and if you don’t think so reread the top of this column.
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