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What Type Of Smoke Alarm Is Best For Your Home?

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- Smoke alarms are by far the most effective way to get your family out safely when there's a fire.

Still, statistics show one out of every four people who die in a house fire had a working smoke alarm in the home at the time.

We went to one of the leading experts in Minnesota, Jamie Novak, to put alarms to the test.

Novak says there are three types you can buy: ionization, photoelectric and dual-sensor detectors.

He says ionization detectors are the kind most people have in their house because they're the most inexpensive.

"Ionization tend to detect open flaming fires faster, and photoelectric tend to detect slow-smoldering fires faster," Novak said.

The dual-sensor alarms incorporate both technologies. With the help of Coon Rapids Fire Marshal Todd Williams, Novak mounted the three types to the ceiling of a Coon Rapids home. We first set a smoldering fire.

"We'll simulate someone falling asleep, dropping a cigarette," Novak said.

A smoldering fire smokes for a long time before it turns to flames, if it ever does. The majority of people who die in a fire do so from breathing in too much smoke, not the fire itself.

"A lot of the slow-smoldering fires tend to be at night when you're asleep and not going to react," he said. "A slow-smoldering fire during the day isn't that big and dangerous because you should notice the smoke and have plenty of time to get out."

The dual sensor is the first to sound, 32 minutes and 40 seconds after the smoldering fire started. Ten seconds later, the photoelectric starts to blare. I can still see clearly through the room.

Another 15 minutes go by and the smoke started to irritate my lungs, so I put a mask on to help me with my breathing.

As time ticks by, the ionization smoke alarm still hasn't sounded. It becomes harder to see through the smoke. Novak eventually needs to put on a mask, and Williams decides it's time to retreat.

"I definitely want to get out of this room so if I would wake up without a smoke detector, sit up in this smoke condition, it would really be tough," Novak said. "Then you factor in sleeping and darkness, it would be scary at this point to get out of your house."

Nearly an hour (55 minutes and 31 seconds) after the photoelectric and combination smoke detectors went off, the ionization finally sounded. The room is completely filled with smoke.

"I'm truly surprised at the big difference between the two," Williams said.

So how do the smoke alarms fare in a flaming fire? In a kitchen fire started by matches, all three detectors went off within three-and-a-half minutes of each other.

What's important to note is during our test, we could still get out safely when all of the smoke alarms sounded.

"I think on some of the slow-smoldering fires, [photoelectric detectors] might be a big difference that make the difference between being alive or dead after a fire," Novak said.

After our test, Coon Rapids Fire Marshal Todd Williams changed the smoke alarms in his home. Williams, a 26-year veteran of the fire industry, was part of 90 percent of the population who have only ionization detectors in their homes. He decided to replace them with the dual-sensor alarms.

To find out what type of detector you have in your home, look on the back of the device. The fine print should say "ionization" or "photoelectric." In a store, the front of the packaging should be clearly labeled.

Ionization detectors, which are the kind most people have, are around $5 or $10 a piece, while photoelectric ones are $20 and up. Dual-sensor alarms are $30 and up.

Of course, we want to stress any working smoke alarm is better than nothing.

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