The infernal dilemma of smoke alarms

jtarica@thetribunenews.comMay 26, 2012 

I wrote this column in my head between 4:35 and 5:13 one morning, with an ear peeled for the interminable, sporadic bleating of a smoke alarm asking for its battery to be changed.

If you think I had some stroke of creative writing inspiration — like maybe the plot for a new J.K. Rowling novel — while lying awake, cringing in anticipation of the next chirp, forget it.

I’m just going to write about how much I hate smoke alarms and the curious alternate universe in which they operate.

After decades of studious field research in the halls and bedrooms of various homes, I have discovered 15 rules that apply to smoke alarms in fully unique ways compared to other electronic devices.

Here we go:

1. Smoke alarm batteries only go bad between the hours of 2:17 and 3:29 a.m. Consequently, the batteries only fail in pitch blackness, never in daylight. A smoke alarm whose battery goes bad during the day is clearly defective and should be returned to the manufacturer.

2. A smoke alarm that begins chirping in the middle of the night will stop chirping once the sun comes up. The next night, after you’ve forgotten about the dying battery and the clock has once again passed 2 a.m., it will resume chirping.

3. To notify you that a battery is wearing out, the device has been designed to emit somewhat polite, randomly spaced beeps whose courteousness will still manage to penetrate your brain like an ice pick from even the most remote point in your house. They will travel through walls, doors, 6-inch-thick Kryptonite insulation that would floor Superman ... you name it. The sound’s ability to penetrate is only exceeded by the voices of squabbling children on a Sunday morning.

4. The length of time between chirps is based on a complex algorithm that is calculated precisely to the number of minutes it takes you to fall back to sleep following the last chirp. The less time you’d need to get back to sleep, the more often the alarm beeps.

5. The smoke alarm battery replacement chirp is actually more effective at rousing you from sleep than the continuous shriek of the alarm itself.

6. Smoke alarms are outfitted with two different kinds of batteries. The ones in alarms placed above the dining room table that are accessible simply by stepping on a chair run on a mysterious power of atmospheric osmosis and never, ever wear out. The batteries in the alarms placed at the very apex of your vaulted ceiling 28 feet above floor level fail at the wisp of a passing cobweb and will die every three months.

7. Dogs sense a deteriorating smoke alarm battery in the same mythical way they can predict earthquakes. They will anticipate the chirp and begin barking for no reason. This will act as a pre-alarm to the dead battery beep and ensures that you will be wide awake when the alarm starts its intermittent nagging, meaning you’ll have not one but two unwelcome noises to ruin your sleep.

8. When a human being goes searching for the offending smoke alarm, the alarm will sense the motion via a night-vision infrared sensor and return to silent mode, thwarting any attempts to identify which of the five or six devices in the house is actually malfunctioning. The bad one will nearly always be the farthest from your bed but always just close enough to another alarm to make it impossible to tell which is beeping.

9. In order to finally identify the guilty device, you will have to stand dead still, holding your breath without blinking for minutes, somewhere in close enough proximity to make a positive identification. You may have to do this repeatedly in every room of your house. You’ll feel like you are stalking a wily rabbit in tall grass or playing Whack-a-Mole without the pleasure of getting to physically hit anything.

10. It is a virtual certainty that when the time comes to actually change the battery, the process of balancing on one foot on the top step of a 6-foot ladder while reaching precariously toward the alarm will prove to be more life-threatening than the risk of actually dying in a fire. You might be better off throwing rocks at it and trying to knock the thing off the ceiling.

11. As you’re balancing with your life in jeopardy, you will forget how to open the device. Does it rotate and click? Do you push a button and snap? Is there a sliding battery cover?

12. Once you get the alarm open, you will realize anew as you do each time that the device is hard-wired to the power of your house. This will frustrate you to no end as you wonder why it even needs a battery at all. No notion of the battery operating as a fail-safe backup will occur to you at this moment.

13. Now perched atop the ladder with one hand pressed against the ceiling and the alarm dangling by its wire, you must then try to deftly pry the dead battery from its plastic tomb. It is at this moment you will see the battery is a 9-volt. You will have no memory of it ever being a 9-volt before and will be fully convinced it was double-A.

14. You will NOT, IN NO WAY, EVER actually have a new 9-volt battery in the house anywhere, even in the kids’ talking Elmo. Your only hope is finding your old hand-held Coleco football game from 1983, which was the most popular toy ever to run on a 9-volt battery. Failing this, you will have to take a trip to the store and repeat this nonsensical installation effort over again.

15. When you finally do get the new battery, brave the perils of the ladder and at last return the smoke alarm to full functionality, it will be the most triumphant home-improvement project you’ve ever undertaken, bar none. I don’t care if you’ve hand-carved new oak kitchen cabinets from the tree you planted as a sapling and installed them above the marble floor you excavated from the quarry in your backyard, replacing the battery in your smoke alarm will be more satisfying in the end.

These are the rules of the smoke alarm, and they are as set in stone as the Ten Commandments. Thwart them at your peril.

Joe Tarica is the presentation editor at The Tribune. Reach him at jtarica@

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