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Barry Stone, Seller asks about smoke alarms

DEAR BARRY: Our listing agent says we have to install smoke alarms before selling our home. We've lived here for 35 years without alarms and have never had a problem with fires. Basically, our question is three-fold: Are smoke alarms really necessary? If so, where should they be installed, and should they be battery-powered or connected to the electrical wiring?

— Jan

DEAR JAN: Your agent has pointed out a crucial fire safety deficiency. Smoke alarms are necessary, not merely as a requirement for sellers, but for your own protection as an occupant. The fact that you've never had a fire is no guarantee you never will. In the event of a fire, a set of properly positioned alarms can ensure that you or the buyer of your home will be awakened in time to seek safety.

According to the National Fire Prevention Association, less than one minute may elapse between the time a house is beginning to smoke until it is completely engulfed in flames. If you happen to be sleeping during that minute, you could miss out on the rest of your life. So here is a review of the requirements.

Smoke alarm laws have been part of the building code for decades, yet are among the most frequently violated of home safety requirements. A significant number of homes either have no smoke alarms, have too few alarms, have ones that are incorrectly placed, or alarms that are simply inoperative.

Smoke alarm requirements are not the same for every home. They vary according to local municipal standards and the age of the dwelling in question. For homes built before 1979, battery-powered smoke alarms are permissible. In newer dwellings, alarms must be powered by the electrical wiring. The problem with battery-powered units is that people often neglect battery replacement. On the other hand, what good are wired-in smoke alarms if you have an electrical fire accompanied by a power outage? The safest arrangement, therefore, is to install wired-in alarms, equipped with battery back-up. These can be obtained at most hardware stores and are required for homes built in 1993 or later.

Requirements for smoke alarm placement also vary according to the age of the dwelling. In older homes built before 1993, most municipalities require alarms in the following locations: Within close proximity to all bedroom entrances, on each story of a multilevel home and in basements. Later standards require that there be an additional alarm in each bedroom. Another practical location, although not required in all municipalities, is the garage.

Additionally, wherever smoke alarms are installed, ceilings are the best specific locations, primarily because smoke rises. However, it is permissible to install an alarm on a wall, as long as it is within 12 inches of the ceiling.

One final requirement involves homes that are remodeled or enlarged: When the cost of an addition or alteration exceeds $1,000, and whenever a permit is required, smoke alarms must be installed in compliance with the latest standards, regardless of the age of the building.

Above all, wherever you place your alarms and whatever kind of smoke alarms you use, be sure to test them regularly to ensure that they are operative at all times.

For further details regarding specific smoke alarm requirements in your area, consult your local fire department or building department.

To write Barry Stone, go to www.housedetective.com.