Overpriced smoke alarms aren’t necessary to do the job

By Russ Van Arsdale, Executive director, Northeast CONTACT
Posted Nov. 19, 2011, at 1:31 p.m.

Among the products that may be easiest to sell are those that offer peace of mind. Those who doubt this assertion might refer to the long-ranging debate over health insurance.

Smoke detectors are products that cut to the chase in terms of personal safety. They stand by silently (unless we burn the toast) and do their lifesaving work when fire threatens life and property.

They are such basic parts of our homes that few of us would willingly go without them. Since they came on the scene, home smoke detectors have dropped dramatically in price. That’s why we were distressed to receive an email from Lt. Jason “Jake” Johnson, safety officer with the Bangor Fire Department.

Johnson passed along a message from a local resident, who said relatives had attended a presentation at a local restaurant. The salesperson didn’t put a price on his smoke alarms, preferring instead to focus on the dangers of fire and the possibly tragic results of a fire in which smoke detectors did not function properly.

The pitch came later, after the salesperson made arrangements to meet with the couple at their home. Johnson said the presentation appeared to be along the lines of many others over the years. It starts with a “free safety check” and review of your current smoke detector setup. Yours is not great, of course, and an upgrade to the salesperson’s product line is what you most definitely need.

The shocker comes when you hear the price: $1,500 to $3,000 is not uncommon for four or five smoke detectors, a couple of carbon monoxide detectors and sometimes a heat detector or two. All of this is touted as “commercial grade,” far superior to what you have now. The deal is pushed as a small price to pay for your family’s safety and peace of mind.

All of this is perfectly legal. Salespeople are free to charge whatever the market will bear for any kind of product, but no one said anyone has to buy them when comparable products are available at far lower prices. (Johnson says most high-pressure salespeople are selling well-made smoke and CO detectors, complete with Underwriters Laboratory approval, but vastly overpriced.)

In our local example, the couple was told their current smoke detectors “probably wouldn’t work in an actual fire and they really need these particular devices to be safe.” One selling point may be an interconnected system; when one smoke alarm sounds, others in the house will go off as well, alerting everyone to the problem.

Johnson recommends that people consider the types of smoke alarms available. Ionizing and photoelectric smoke detectors respond differently, depending on whether the problem is a smoky or flash-type fire. For maximum protection, consumers might consider installing both types. Some manufacturers build both types into a single unit.

You’re not fully protected unless you also have a CO detector. These units respond when the odorless, colorless, deadly gas builds to unsafe levels; you should get everyone out of the house immediately when a CO detector sounds and call the fire department. Johnson says the heat detectors pushed by some salespeople likely are not the lifesavers they are touted to be and that they are more useful in commercial installations.

The safety officer’s bottom-line advice is to call your local fire department when you have questions, rather than buying based on a sales pitch. You may find you can have thorough coverage and protection at far less cost than some would have you believe. You also may be able to arrange a free inspection of your system.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s membership-funded, nonprofit consumer organization. Individual and business memberships are available at modest rates. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for more information, write Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer 04412, visit http://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

http://bangordailynews.com/2011/11/19/business/overpriced-smoke-alarms-aren%e2%80%99t-necessary-to-do-the-job/ printed on September 17, 2014