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Have you encountered midnight aggravations that leave indelible impressions in your mind? Let me introduce you to smoke detectors. Here’s an incident that happened years ago.

“Wake up, Gene! Wake up!”

I was already awake — sort of — banging my head in the process of trying to find my slippers in the dark, which made things worse. Now, I had pierced ears and a bleeding forehead!

I knocked something off the dresser as I sleepily tried to turn on the light.

“I hope that wasn’t my special picture,” Carol moaned.

“No,” I groaned. “It landed on my foot. Now I have hurting ears, a bleeding forehead, and a broken foot.” It wasn’t really broken, but when the corner of the picture frame hit my foot, my foot felt like it broke.

I finally reached full consciousness and checked the house for smoke or fire. Nothing. No smoke in the attic, either. I then turned my attention — should I call it frustration? — to the screeching chirping sound in the middle of the night that was trying to warn us of impending doom.

By National Fire Protection Association standards, the sound level of the alarm must be around 85 decibels throughout the room. That means it can be 95 or 100 2-feet away. Standing on the ladder with my head 2-feet from the mind-numbing screeching thing, I longed for ear protection! Average room noise is 60-65 decibels, and 95 is 1,000 times louder.

How do these noise-makers work?

Smoke detectors are commonly powered by 9-volt batteries. They have electrodes that have a very small radioactive element between two electrically-charged plates that ionize the air. This causes a small electrical current to flow. When smoke, dust, or small critters get between the plates, it disrupts the ionic flow and sets off the alarm.

The cooler the temperature, the slower the activity of the battery, and a cold battery will act like a worn-out battery. Houses are normally the coolest between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m. and much cooler during that time in the winter. That’s why these frustrations often happen at night. But high humidity in hot weather can also set them off.

The 9-volt batteries that power the alarms should be replaced every 6 months, and the smoke detector should be replaced every 10 years. When the battery is running low, the unit chirps every 30 to 60 seconds.

It doesn’t take much smoke to set these things off. Toasters and ovens within 10 feet are often the culprits that trigger them. Bugs can set them off. They crawl in, get zapped, and remain, and no one knows about the trespasser.

Some smoke detectors are hard-wired into the AC rather than using batteries, and sometimes radical changes in electrical current can activate the alarm. In this case, you need to locate the reset button, push it and hold it for 20 seconds. That should reset it. Hopefully.

The NFPA reports tell us that three out of five fire deaths occur in homes without smoke alarms or where the alarm doesn’t work.

Propane detectors are similar. Propane is explosive and can blow the house or trailer apart, but the gas can kill by asphyxiation: the same as suffocation.

We were near Gettysburg, Penn., on our big trip, when …

“Thank you for the breakfast, Precious. If you wash dishes, I’ll dry.”

“Thank you. Things go faster with a little help.”

About 10 minutes later, our serenity was totally shattered!

“We were through cooking an hour ago. What’s that thing sounding off for?” Carol demanded.

I opened the door and one of the windows, and was pushing the reset button on the smoke detector; but it wouldn’t hush up.

“How about the one near your feet?” Carol asked. I looked at the propane detector, pushed that reset button, and it quieted down. But within minutes, it began screaming again. Time and again, I opened the door, pushed the button, but this thing had a mind of its own.

“I want to yank the thing out of the wall.” I told Carol.

Finally calling the rep who sold us the trailer, he said, “Unscrew it from the wall, cut one of the wires, put it back. I’ll replace the faulty unit when you return home.” Okay — better than yanking it, I suppose; and my ears eventually healed.

Properly maintained, these things have saved many lives, and I’m grateful for them. But keep ear protection nearby.


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