What Things Cost: Fire Alarms

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We received an invitation to a free-dinner-talk, sent from what we thought was the local fire department. Turns out, it was a guy trying to sell us smoke alarms.

Sitting through the somewhat dreadful dinner of pulled pork, beans, and coleslaw, I whispered to Jim, “Bet it costs $5000 to put smoke alarms in the house.” And sure enough, the cost, as we learned on a subsequent evening, was $4900.

For smoke alarms? Really?

Now we already have wired-in smoke alarms in the house. They were here in 2000 when we moved in and, other than change the batteries, we’ve done nothing to them. But. What we learned the night of the dinner was this: our smoke alarms operate via ionization, detecting electrically charged particles. According to the salesman at the dinner, these fail in 55 percent of house fires.

Instead, the salesman showed us photoelectric devices, which detect smoke via a beam of light. He suggested we buy 6 photoelectric devices, together with alarms for the kitchen and attic that measure rate of rise in heat—when the kitchen temperature rises more than 15 degrees in less than a minute, an alarm sounds. Plus two fire extinguishers. Plus a fire blanket. All installed in the house for $4900.

Long story short, Amazon sells a variety of photoelectric smoke alarms for $35-$65. We bought four of the $35 variety, installed them ourselves. Cost? Less than $200. We can purchase the rest of the equipment for about another $200.

Total? $400. Of course, we have to install everything ourselves (thank you, Jim) and our products are made in Mexico rather than California. But is the supposed quality difference worth $4500?

Hmm …