Is your smoke detector working?

If a fire happens in your home, how long would it take for you to get your first warning?

It wouldn't take long with the type of smoke detector most people have in their homes. It uses what's called an ionization sensor -- and is best at reacting to fast flaming fires that give off little smoke.

But what about slow burning, heavy smoke fires? We heard this kind of detector works best; it uses a photoelectric sensor.

To put both types to the test, we went to the new "Center for Emergency Preparedness" at Owens Community College.

Northwood firefighters John Romstadt and Brian Dempsey suit up -- and a chair is brought into their burn building. They place a soldering iron in the cushions of the chair and set it on fire. This will mimic what happens in a slow moving, high smoke fire.

The ionization detector-- the one you probably have at home-- is on the left. The photoelectric one is on the right.

"I'm really curious to see how much time difference there is between them," says Tom Pack, with the Center for Emergency Preparedness.

Eight minutes after the fire starts, we see "A little bit of smoke coming up from the crack between the cushion there. You can actually see it right here around the buttons," says Romstadt.

The furniture is flame retardant, and a fire can take several minutes to get going. All that time, noxious gases like hydrogen cyanide and carbon monoxide are building in the room.

Twenty-one minutes into the smoldering fire, we have action. The photoelectric detector -- the one you likely don't have protecting your home -- is the first one to go off. Smoke is filling the room, but the ionization detector still has not gone off.

Pack is concerned that the typical smoke detector might fail right when everything could be on the line.

"You figure if you get up in the middle of the night and just walk down your stairs and go out your front door, that's probably going to take you about 30 seconds. So that difference in time, you're looking at more than 5 minutes of spare time that you have to get out of your house, get your kids up get your family up," Pack says.

We start to see flames building -- the chair is in full ignition when the other one finally kicks on. Twenty-nine minutes into the smoldering fire, and a whopping eight minutes after the photoelectric detector went off, the ionization alarm is finally beeping.

"Eight minutes might not seem like a lot to people but in a fire, that's huge," says Pack. "The size of that fire will more than double, possibly even triple, in that amount of time."

With both detectors now going off, the firefighters put out the blaze. These veteran emergency responders are stunned at what the experiment revealed.

"I was very pessimistic when we started here today. I didn't think there would be significantly amounts of differences. I thought there would be a couple of minutes difference, but 8 minutes is definitely a tremendous difference in time," Pack says.

"I was wondering what kind I have in my house because actually I don't know," says Romstadt.

The lesson here? Have both kinds of detectors in your home. If you already have an ionization alarm, get a photoelectric one to go with it.

"Could it have saved lives?" speculates Pack. "Definitely. With that amount of time difference there is not a doubt in my mind that it would have made a difference."

You're probably thinking the photoelectric detector will cost too much. We bought both kinds of alarms at Menard's. The ionization detector was $6.97. The photoelectric one was just $12.88.

So for about $5 more you could make a decision that might save the lives of everyone in your home.

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Posted by KO