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The Difference Between Photoelectric and Ionisation Smoke Alarms

Ionisation smoke detection

Good for Detecting Flaming or Fast Spreading Fires

These ionisation smoke detectors are very responsive when it comes to detecting flaming fires. These types of fires spread rapidly and consume combustibles quickly. Examples of these types of fire may include grease fires on a stove or paper burning in a wastebasket.

How an Ionisation Smoke Alarm Works

These work because they have a small amount of radioactive material between two electrically charged plates. This ionises the air in the room and leads to current flowing between the different plates. When the smoke from the fire enters into the chamber of the smoke alarm, it will disrupt the flow of ions. This means that the current is disrupted and the alarm sounds.

Photoelectric smoke detection

Good for DetectingSmouldering or Slow Burning Fires

Compared to ionisation alarms, the photoelectric smoke alarm is more responsive with smouldering fires. These fires begin with a long period of smouldering before bursting into flames. A few examples include cigarettes smouldering in bedding or couches.

How a Photoelectric Smoke Alarm Works

These smoke detectors work by aiming a light source into a sensing chamber. This is done at an angle that moves away from the sensor. Once the smoke enters the alarm, it triggers the alarm by reflecting light onto the light sensor.

Which is Best?

Both alarms deal with different types of fires. Their individual advantages may be the difference between life and death in certain situations. Fatal home fires, whether during the day or night, include both a large number of flaming fires and a large number of smouldering fires.

That said, the South Australian Metropolitan Fire Service recommend homes install photoelectric mains connected smoke alarms, as these detect a broader range of fires.(source:Domestic Smoke Alarms - What You Need to Know)

If you are already using an ionisation alarm then you can add supplement your home's fire protection by adding a mains powered photoelectric smoke alarm.

As an aside: If you home has multiple smoke alarms - as would be the case in many homes - the Fire Service also recommends the alarms be inter-connected.

Maintenance and Care

Whichever smoke alarm you choose to use, remember to take time to maintain and check the alarm on a regular basis.

This includes:

  • changing the battery annually - make a note in your calendar or choose an annual holiday like Australia Day to help jog your memory
  • dusting and cleaning the alarm according to the instructions supplied with your alarm(s)
  • regular testing - by hitting the testing button (use a broom handle)

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