NIST Conducts Test to Improve Smoke Detector Technology

National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) fire researchers set an arm chair on fire in a recent test burn as part of research aimed at improving smoke detector technology and reducing nuisance alarms.

The chair fire, set in a manufactured home outfitted with special instruments to measure the fire’s effects, burned for about three minutes and yielded valuable data on the performance of smoke, heat, carbon monoxide, and combination detectors. Researchers positioned various detectors next to the burning chair or in adjacent rooms.

The data collected in these tests eventually could help eliminate the annoying false alarms that prompt so many people to disable their home smoke detectors. NIST burn tests also could help bring about new types of home detectors that monitor smoke, carbon monoxide, and heat.

This test burn is part of a research project to reexamine smoke detector technology and is the most recent in a long line of studies on fire detection that dates back to the collaboration with Underwriters Laboratories in 1974 that led to the current smoke detector standards.

Residential smoke detectors first became available in the 1960s. Over the past 25 years, smoke detector use in homes rose from 10 percent to 95 percent. In that same time, fire deaths dropped by 50 percent.

However, these life-saving alarms are not always able to distinguish between smoke from an actual house fire and burnt toast, or even shower steam. Fire researchers believe false alarms lead millions of Americans to disable their smoke detectors.

Every year, nearly 4,000 Americans die and more than 25,000 are injured in home fires. Improving smoke detector performance potentially could save many more lives and prevent injury and property damage.

For more details on the NIST burn tests, see the Home Smoke Alarm Tests Web page at

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