My husband recently replaced all the smoke detectors in our house. They came along with the home when we purchased it 13 years ago and he thought it was time we updated them — after all, our lives literally depend upon these detectors.
Turned out he was right: Maplewood Fire Chief Michael Dingelstedt says that smoke alarms should be replaced at least every 10 years.
As we stared at the pile of old yellowed plastic and components, it struck us: These did not look like the type of refuse that you just throw in the trash.
So we went back to Chief Dingelstedt of the Maplewood Fire Department about the proper way to dispose of old smoke detectors.
“Thanks for your inquiry regarding the proper disposal of smoke detectors. Most people would presume that they can just be thrown away, but that is not the case,” wrote Dingelstedt in an email.
“The answer to your question is that outdated or non-working smoke detectors should be returned to their respective manufacturers for proper disposal or recycling. The reason is that most smoke detectors contain a small amount of radioactive material. Although they are safe to have in your home, they are classified as hazardous waste and should be disposed of properly and not be thrown in household trash.”
Dingelstedt explained that there are two basic type of smoke detectors, ionization and photoelectric detectors, or a combination of both. Ionization detectors contain the radioactive material that generate a small, continuous electric current in a chamber between two plates. When smoke enters the ionization chamber, the smoke particles disrupt the current flow, which triggers the alarm. Photoelectric detectors use a light beam and light receptor (photocell). When smoke is present between the light and receptor, depending on the type of smoke chamber configuration, the reduction or increase of light on the photocell sensor triggers the alarm. Ionization detectors respond quickly to flaming fires with smaller combustion particles; photoelectric detectors respond more quickly to smoldering fires.
(According to federal guidelines: If a smoke detector contains radioactive material, it is required by law to have a warning label on the body of the smoke detector. The label is usually located at the “top” of the detector, facing the mounting base that attaches to the ceiling or wall. Remove the smoke detector from its base, and look at the label. A typical label might read: This product is designed to detect products of combustion using ionization technology. It contains 0.9 microcurie of Americium 241, a radioactive material. The label may have the international symbol for radiation on the label.)
Although our smoke detectors did not contain radioactive material, we still need to send them back to the manufacturer according to the Essex County Utilities Authority. While some counties include smoke detectors in the list of electronic items that they recycle, Essex County does not — and for good reason, since many consumers get confused over which detectors have radioactive material or because labels can peel off.
The Essex County Utilities Authority provided the following guidelines for smoke detector recycling:
When smoke alarms/detectors cease to function, they should be returned to their respective manufacturer for proper disposal. Please consult the reference manual or the case of your unit for manufacturer contact information. Should you not be able to determine the manufacturer, FIREX will accept and properly dispose of all manufacturers’ smoke alarms/detectors at no charge.
Kidde/FIREX Safety Division
1016 Corporate Park Drive
Mebane, NC 27302
Attn.: Alarm Disposal
Dingelstedt has some more advice: “In addition to ensuring that your batteries are changed every six months, the Maplewood Fire Department encourages residents to inspect their household alarms for a manufacturing date. If you don’t see one printed on the alarm housing, the alarm is almost certainly more than 10 years old, and should be safely disposed of and replaced immediately.”
The Chief also told us that the Maplewood Fire Department has a smoke detector program that makes smoke detectors available to senior citizens and needy residents at no charge. In fact, firefighters will come to your home in such instances and install the detectors as well as discuss proper care and maintenance of the detectors.
Dingelstedt also said that the Maplewood Fire Department offers free in-home fire inspections for township residents. “Fire safety in the home should involve the whole family, young and elderly alike. Firefighters will come to your home to help identify fire hazards and make suggestions to improve home safety for your family. Inspections generally take about one hour and during the inspection, some items discussed are correct placement and testing of smoke detectors and carbon monoxide alarms, fire escape planning, proper removal of fire hazards, and proper types and placement of fire extinguishers.”
For additional information or to schedule an appointment to have smoke detectors installed or have a fire safety inspection in your home, contact Maplewood Fire Headquarters at 973-762-6500., ext. 13.