Life In Our Mountain Town: Why are smoke detectors so hard to reach? | SierraSun.com
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Life In Our Mountain Town: Why are smoke detectors so hard to reach?

Katie Shaffer, Sierra Sun columnist

I did a “walk-through” with our electrician the other day, which means that we walked through our newly-framed house marking where switches will be placed, and making decisions about what light fixtures will go where.

I had suggested putting recessed cans in a two-story high stairway, because I didn’t want to bother with a hanging glass fixture that will just collect dust. He asked me who was going to haul a ladder into the house and change those light bulbs way up high when they burned out. I thought this was a great question! I wish I’d had this electrician when we built our last several houses. We then settled on a few easier-to-reach wall sconces, and moved on.

What I realized after our meeting was that I should have asked him if it’s the building code that requires him to install smoke detectors up in those high reaches of a house. I’m wondering if the smoke detectors in my current house were put in the most inaccessible places because of a requirement or (without blaming anyone specifically) due to poor planning.

It’s always the smoke detectors that are placed in the highest corner of the highest vaulted ceiling in your entire house that go off in the middle of the night with an incessant chirp. This doesn’t mean that your house is on fire. It means that although our smoke detectors are electrically wired, the ever-important back-up battery is losing its power, and it won’t stop chirping until you change it.

This is no easy task, especially at 3 a.m. And the first time it happened to us, or at least the first time my husband actually got out of bed and traipsed to wherever a huge 30-foot ladder was stored, and brought it through the front door and set it up and climbed up there he then asked me if we had any 9-volt batteries. I remember saying to him very doubtfully, “Not triple or double A?” I probably was thinking beyond that “not C or D?” It was apparent to me that my knowledge of battery types was fairly limited. We now always have those rectangular-shaped 9-volt batteries on hand, but at the time, I was dumbfounded and we were out of luck.

And although it’s hard to remember the exact unfolding of events because this all happened quite a few years ago, I’m sure my husband wasn’t very happy, because unlike me, he has trouble getting back to sleep in the middle of the night. I’ve had years of practice getting up and dealing with different needs, and then about two seconds after my head hits the pillow, I’m able to quickly fall back to sleep. Of course what gets me out of bed in the middle of the night is a dog that needs to go out and then a couple of hours later a dog that needs to come back in, or a child who’s sick or who’s had a bad dream. I don’t routinely carry heavy ladders in the middle of the night and then say, “Oh no problem, I’m fast asleep now.”

This is a problem in our house, which I’m hoping may be solved by an idea I got from a friend.

This friend of mine says that the reason our smoke detectors chirp in the middle of the night is because batteries often lose their power as the temperature in your house drops. Therefore, a cold house can sometimes mean a chirping smoke detector.

I think there must be some truth to this scientific-sounding explanation, especially because sometimes the chirping stops the next day. You may have heard the smoke detector chirping, but either you thought it was part of a dream, or maybe you’re a heavier sleeper than I am. For sure, it probably wasn’t the smoke detector right outside your bedroom door. Perhaps it was just a distant nuisance further away in your house. So you sleep through it mostly and then you just plain forget about it because once you wake up you don’t hear it anymore. You get busy with your daily routine and it never occurs to you, until 3 a.m. the following morning, when the chirping starts again.

So here’s the tip; the next time your smoke detector wakes you up in the middle of the night with its low-battery alert, simply get up and turn the heat up on your thermostat.

Since we are now getting into the season of colder nights when smoke detectors may start acting up, I hope I remember this little trick, so we all sleep better.

Katie Shaffer has lived in Truckee since 1981.


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