Electrical, Safety

Why Do Smoke Detectors Give a False Alarm?

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Hubert Miles

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Smoke detectors are essential to have in every home, office, or apartment building as it provides a warning system in case of a fire. Unfortunately, smoke alarms can go off for no reason. Smoke detector false alarms are a common problem. Let’s discuss why.

Interference with the internal sensor is the most common reason for a false smoke alarm. A dead battery usually causes a chirping smoke detector and have a red flashing light. False alarms at night often occur between 2:00 AM and 6:00 AM when cool air interferes with the signal strength. Interference can also be caused by foreign particles like chemical fumes, smoke, dust, insects, and paint that gets inside the smoke detector triggering a false alarm. Smoke alarms over ten years old can trigger a false alarm signaling it’s time for a replacement.

To turn off a false smoke alarm, you’ll need to locate the smoke detector that triggered the signal and disconnect it. The smoke detector that triggered the false alarm will have a flashing red light and, once unplugged, will shut off the signal to the other smoke alarms. You should then change the battery and clean the smoke detector before reinstalling it. If the false alarm continues, you should replace the faulty detector.

Why Does Smoke Detector Go Off with No Smoke?

If you have noticed that your smoke detectors go off and then stop on their own, there can be several underlying issues causing this problem. The biggest contributing factor to the smoke detectors going off for a short time on their own is the age of the device itself. 

Most smoke detectors have a lifespan of around ten years, and if you’ve moved into a home where the smoke detectors are yellowed, their age may be causing the issue. If you are unsure how old the smoke detectors are, look at the manufactured date on the back label. 

If there is no sticker with dates on it, we recommend replacement. Older smoke detectors can become erratic and super sensitive to airborne particles; thus, it is essential to replace old smoke detectors. They might start going off for no reason, or even worse, don’t go off when you need them.

It can be possible that the smoke detector is faulty. Sometimes smoke detectors can have overly sensitive sensors. Bad smoke detectors can be an issue as the sensors will pick up any microscopic particles in the air and consider them to be smoke particles and go off but stop as soon as it stops sensing those particles. 

Why Do Smoke Detectors Keep Going Off for No Reason?

A weak battery is the most common cause of false alarms.

When batteries weaken, signal strength interference can occur, causing a chirping alarm. Most batteries inside hard-wired fire alarms run off a 9volt battery that needs replacement every 6 months. I suggest you choose a quality 9volt battery and replace all the smoke detector batteries together.

Newer smoke alarms can have a 10-year lithium battery to combat this problem. When the battery fails, you replace the smoke detector.

Smoke detector wiring may also cause false alarms. The wiring could have a loose wiring connection or a faulty plug. With the power off, check the connections to ensure the wiring is secure. Look at the connector and blow off any debris and check for broken pins.

Smoke particles from candles, cigarettes, or cigars can trigger a smoke detector.

To avoid this, place candles away from smoke detectors and smoke outside or in a well-ventilated area. Be sure that your candles are placed away from other flammable materials. Smoke often comes off candles even after blowing them out for several minutes.

Smoking or vaping should be done outside or in a well ventilated area with either a ventilation fan or an open window to avoid setting off a near by smoke alarm.

Be careful using chemicals while deep-cleaning or renovations.

Smoke alarms can react to strong-smelling chemicals used in confined spaces. Examples include bleach or paint thinners and removers. Smoke alarms react to interference caused by strong-smelling chemicals. Open doors or windows when using chemicals to ventilate the area. Smoke alarms can react when detergents and cleaning chemical vapor come close to a smoke alarm, causing a false alarm. 

Cooking can set off smoke alarms even with no smoke present.

Combustion particles from burnt food or spills from overflowing pots during cooking can set off a smoke alarm. Kitchen exhaust fans can help remove combustion particles and expel them outside. Unvented kitchen fans don’t expel combustion particles out but do filter them.

Another primary reason your smoke detector can go off without fire or smoke is the high humidity in the room with the smoke detector. When there is high humidity, the air’s moisture particles are incredibly dense, and these particles can confuse the smoke detector into sensing them as smoke particles. Thus, the smoke detector will go off as it senses the air particles and considers them smoke. 

Steam can also have the same effect on smoke detectors due to the presence of dense moisture particles. When large amounts of steam are released next to a smoke detector, the alarm can go off. 

False alarms can occur at night too

In the middle of the night, sudden temperature changes can cause smoke detector beeps or an alarm for a few seconds. In winter, the temperature drops significantly during the nighttime, and this drop in temperature can hurt the smoke detector’s battery power. 

This is also common with smoke alarms that are installed close to air conditioning vents. When the air conditioning comes on at night, the sudden drop in temperature can cause interference triggering a false alarm.

Insects collect inside the smoke alarm housing.

Insects are attracted to the heat from inside the smoke alarm housing. Dead insects collect inside the alarm housing over time, which triggers false alarms. The smoke detector has an opening for smoke to enter, allowing insects, most commonly spiders, to get inside the detector and interfere with the device’s sensor. Spiders will build webs inside the detector to trap other insects attracted to the heat.

Dust buildup inside the smoke detector housing.

Much like insects, dust and grime can build up inside the smoke detector setting off the alarm. As dust settles inside the smoke detector, it can interrupt the signal causing false alarms. It’s important to clean your smoke alarms when you change the batteries as part of your routine maintenance.

Dust buildup inside your heating system.

Heating systems collect dust on the components over the spring and summer. The initial heating startup burns the dust off, which can set off a smoke detector. Bi-annual routine HVAC service, including cleaning the coils and routine air filter maintenance, can prevent false alarms from occurring.

Mold or mildew inside the smoke detector housing.

Like dust, mold or mildew can grow inside the alarm housing. Mold and mildew can grow in homes with high humidity or in smoke detectors located near kitchens or bathrooms where the detector routinely is affected by steam from cooking or showering.

Ceiling paint on the smoke alarm housing.

Often, people will try to paint around smoke alarms rather than remove them. Painting around a smoke alarm is an amateur mistake. Paint can seep inside the housing, causing false alarms, or worse, cause the smoke alarm not to work. When paint enters the interior of a smoke detector, it settles on the many small components and sensors and can only be replaced.

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Hubert Miles

I've been conducting professional home inspections since 2002. I'm a licensed Home Inspector, Certified Professional Inspector (CPI), Certified Master Inspector (CMI), and FHA 203k Consultant. I started HomeInspectionInsider.com to help people better understand the home inspection process and answer questions about homeownership and home maintenance.
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