Last Updated: February 10, 2023

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Ionization Smoke Detector Overview

There are two smoke detection technologies that are recognized as effective within the fire safety community, and ionization is one of them. Ionization smoke detectors generally work better when a fire is flaming, rather than just smoldering.

Ionization smoke detectors are made with a minute amount of radioactive material between two electrically charged plates, according to the National Fire Protection Association. This configuration ionizes the air and causes a current to flow through the plates. When smoke enters that chamber, the flow of ions is disrupted and the flow of the current is reduced, thus triggering the alarm.

How Much Do Ionization Smoke Detectors Cost?

Ionization smoke detectors are very inexpensive. They usually cost about $5. However, price should not be the deciding factor when choosing a smoke alarm. Don’t risk your life to save $15 by opting for an ionization detector in areas of the home that are better suited to a photoelectric detector.

Combination ionization/photoelectric smoke detectors run about $30. Because each type of smoke detectors reacts differently, fire experts recommend having a combination detector or one of each.

Ionization Smoke Detectors Pros

  • React faster to flaming fires - Ionization smoke detectors can pick up on very small amounts of smoke, alerting you earlier in the case of a fire with rapid flames, which tend to produce less smoke.
  • Better suited for rooms with combustibles - Ionization detectors are better suited for rooms that contain combustible materials such as cleaning solutions, flammable liquids and newspapers. The combustible materials cause flames to spread quickly.

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Ionization Smoke Detectors Cons

  • Less effective for smoldering fires - Ionization smoke detectors take much longer to respond to smoldering fires that have yet to produce flames. They can be 10 minutes slower or more.
  • Prone to false alarms - Because ionization smoke detectors are so sensitive to smoke, they’re more likely to trigger a false alarm from cooking activities or bathroom steam.

Ionization vs Photoelectric

Photoelectric Smoke Detectors Overview

The other industry-recognized technology is photoelectric. Photoelectric smoke detectors work better during fires that start with a long period of smoldering, rather than those that immediately erupt into big flames.

According to the NFPA, photoelectric smoke detectors aim a light source into a sensing chamber at an angle facing away from the sensor. When smoke enters the chamber, it reflects light onto the sensor, activating the alarm.

How Much Do Photoelectric Smoke Detectors Cost?

Photoelectric smoke detectors usually cost about $20.

Photoelectric Smoke Detectors Pros

  • Better for smoldering fires - Photoelectric smoke detectors respond much faster to smoldering fires that have yet to break out into big flames.
  • Better suited for living rooms, bedrooms and kitchens - Photoelectric smoke detectors work better in room that have large pieces of furniture such as couches, beds and countertops. Furniture tends to cause fires to burn slowly and smolder.
  • Fewer false alarms - Photoelectric smoke detectors are less likely to trigger a false alarm due to cooking or bathroom steam.

Photoelectric Smoke Detectors Cons

  • Not as sensitive to smoke - It takes a greater amount of smoke to activate a photoelectric smoke detector, which can be dangerous during fires that produce little smoke but lots of big flames. However, keep in mind that photoelectric smoke detectors are recognized as more effective for smoldering fires.

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