Play It Safe with Your Smoke Alarms

Smoke alarms may be one of those items that homeowners “set and forget.” But if you haven’t thought about your smoke alarms in many years, it’s high time to take a fresh look.

Most smoke alarms are only tested to last 10 years. What’s more, the Massachusetts Board of Fire Prevention Regulations adopted new smoke alarm guidelines effective December 1, 2016, which apply to homes constructed before 1975 that have battery-powered smoke alarms. (Homes constructed after 1975 must follow the regulations of the State Building Code [780 CMR].)

Updated technology

Some of the regulation changes reflect advances in smoke alarm technology over the years. Alarms must be photoelectric, a technology better at detecting smoldering fires, which are more likely to be fatal. This can be in combination with ionization, which works better at detecting flaming fires.  An alarm that uses ionization alone does not meet the standard; ionization smoke alarms are more prone to “nuisance” alarms from cooking or steam.

Battery-powered smoke alarms are now required to have a 10-year battery sealed inside them, so no more wondering when you last replaced a battery. Alarms must be equipped with a “hush” feature to silence nuisance alarms. There are smoke and carbon monoxide alarm combinations available which meet these requirements.

If you have working battery-powered smoke alarms that were installed before December 2016, they can still be used until they are 10 years old or have exceeded the manufacturer’s recommended life. After that, they must be replaced by new units that meet the updated regulations.

Smoke alarm placement

One- and two-family homes built before 1975 (and which have not been significantly altered) must have alarms placed in the following locations:

  • On every habitable level of the home
  • In the basement
  • On the ceiling at the base of each stairway leading to a floor above, including the basement stairway (but not within stairways)
  • On the ceiling outside each sleeping area
  • In two-family homes, in all common areas shared by residents
  • Highly recommended, but not required, on the ceiling in each bedroom

Alarms may be battery-powered, hardwired, or a combination of both.

  • Replacement battery-powered alarms must be the type with a sealed, non-rechargeable, non-replaceable 10-year battery.
  • Alarms in non-required locations can have replaceable batteries.
  • If wireless or networked, alarms can have a replaceable battery as long as the battery lasts for at least one year.

New and replacement combination smoke and carbon monoxide alarms must also meet new requirements:

  • They must have both a tone and a voice alarm to identify the type of emergency.
  • Battery-powered combination alarms must have a 10-year, sealed, non-replaceable battery to meet the power requirements for the service life of the unit.

Further reading

Learn more about photoelectric vs. ionization smoke alarm technology from the National Fire Protection Association.

The Department of Fire Services has a Guide to Massachusetts Smoke and CO Alarm Regulations When Selling a One- or Two-Family Home, which explains the regulations in more detail.