Smoking out Sparky: How I Let Down My Favorite Childhood Hero.

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Okay, so summer is fast approaching us all, and I don’t know about anyone else, but I am READY. Fire pits, barbecue, sparklers and fireworks are the little things that make harsh winters worth my loudly-suffering time.

Every summer where I grew up, the local hospital, police department, and fire department would band together with local businesses to have a safety festival. You would always know it was time to break out the summer bubble wands and bug spray when the fliers for Safety Day started showing up. At that festival, we would get to ride the fire truck, climb the ladder, get plastic sheriff’s badges, and watch eggs surviving falls in bike helmets while our parents learned about how to keep us hooligans safe, should something happen. 

The reason I recount this story is because I feel I personally take for granted a lot of what I learned at Safety Day (sorry, Sparky, the fire safety dog). As an adult, I rely too heavily on the infallibility of the smoke detector, but I don’t take care of it enough to give myself and warrant that blind faith. I forget to change the batteries in my smoke detectors. I don’t have a good exit that is free of furniture, in case a fire hits. I even (horror of horrors) keep frayed electric cords and don’t always unplug old electric appliances after I use them. I had to have a hard talk with myself, and first get a new smoke detector. The one I had….was broken. Not dead from low battery. Broken. Kaput. I couldn’t believe it. So, while I trekked off to the home goods store, I started thinking about smoke detectors and how they worked (when they worked at all).

The year 1890 showed the patent of the first automatic electric fire alarm by Francis Upton, and from there, fire alarms have been growing in complexity and developing to include testing for heat and combustible gasses. 

Usually, the detector is powered by a battery, and has been developed to allow longer life with options for lithium-powered batteries. The size and shape of smoke detectors have also changed over the years, finally being sold in a small and inexpensive enough package to be in homes by 1951. 

Two different types of smoke detectors currently exist; ionization smoke detectors, and photoelectric, or optical, smoke detectors. 

Ionization smoke detectors operate using a radioisotope to ionize air. If there is smoke in the air reading, the difference between regular and smoke-filled air will be detected. Then, an alarm will sound. 

Photoelectric, or optical, smoke detectors work by holding a source of infrared or violet light, a lens, and a photoelectric receiver. The source tends to be either a LED, or a little lightbulb. These components are kept in a chamber through which air flows, or are projected out into a large area through a beam. the light is processed either through the chamber, or through another device, reading the air to see if the light has been weakened by smoke through the air tested. Put more simply, light is beamed, the strength of that light is read, and if the light is weaker than when it was emitted, the alarm goes off. There is a margin of error, but if the light is lower than the “danger threshold,” the alarm will sound.

Today, photoelectric alarms are more widely accepted as safer and faster-detecting than ionization smoke detectors, although both are used widely throughout homes and public buildings. Many home smoke alarms are hard-wired into the electrical wiring of your home, and have battery backup. Now, there are even smoke detectors that connect to other components within your automated life to shut off furnaces, to provide illumination for exit, even to send out a vocal warning before it sounds to war of the alarm sounding. 

There are multiple places where further advancement to smoke detectors could assist in making life easier and safer. Multiple companies are working on software and updates to make all produced detectors safer, last longer, and work more effectively. Below are’s best smoke detectors of 2019. Please take a look! And, please, be safe, and follow some of Sparky's tips for having a safe home! Test your smoke detectors, or think seriously about upgrading them. Your life is worth the effort!

Sparky, the fire safety dog!

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