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Smoke Detector Types and Disposal

Installing and maintaining working smoke detectors is a simple safeguard residents have against potential tragedy.

And yet according to the National Fire Protection Association, more than a third of home fire deaths happened in homes with no smoke alarms and in a quarter of the home fire deaths the alarms were installed but didn’t sound.

If you don’t have smoke detectors, take the time to learn about different options and install the one that is best suited for your home – your safety could depend on it.

There are different types of smoke detectors:

  • Ionization;
  • Photoelectric; and,
  • Ionization/Photoelectric combinations.

Basically, the two types (the third being a combination of the two) use different methods to detect the presence of smoke in the air.

An ionization smoke alarm sounds when smoke that has entered into an air chamber interrupts a current between two electrodes. This type of alarm, while it’s perfectly safe in your home, should never be tampered with. An ionization smoke alarm contains a small amount of radioactive material of radioactive material that, while it's perfectly safe in your home, should never be tampered with.

Photoelectric smoke alarms operate on the same principle in that when smoke interrupts a beam of light the alarm sounds. This type of alarm responds best to slow smoldering fires and would be suited for living rooms, bedrooms and kitchen areas.

A third option in smoke alarms is a combination ionization/photoelectric unit.

The National Fire Protection Agency recommends using both types – ionization and photoelectric - in your home for the best protection.

One last option in fire alarms is heat detectors but studies have shown they are not as effective as smoke detectors in homes.

Smoke alarms vary in price and quality so carefully consider your purchase and follow the manufacturer’s guidelines for placement and maintenance to avoid the potential of becoming part of the terrible annual statistic in fire deaths.

Learn more about smoke alarms and fire safety at the National Fire Protection Association website.


According to the NY Department of Environmental Conservation’s publication Managing and Disposing of Household Hazardous Waste:

"SMOKE DETECTORS may be either photoelectric or ionizing. The ionizing variety is radioactive and may pose hazards to human health if large quantities are accumulated. However, single detectors may be safely discarded with household trash. Some smoke detectors can be returned to the manufacturer. Check the package of the new smoke detector to see if they offer a return service."

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