Rude Awakening 3/13/21

Thoughts by Richard Bleil

A few days ago as you read this (today as I write it), I had a house fire.

Yup, an actual, factual house fire. A little after 6, the smoke alarm just outside of my bedroom in the hallway screamed at me to wake up. Sure enough, the smell of smoke, and even visible smoke, seemed to be in the air. It was a very clean smelling smoke, like campfire wood. Did I call the fire department? No. Should I have? Well, yeah, but I’m stubborn.

What I did do is get out of bed, and go downstairs to grab the nearest fire extinguisher, and then I searched for the fire. The fire extinguishers are all near the doors of the house, because if you’re going to get a fire extinguisher you want an exit behind you. If, for example, I kept one near the top of the stairs, then if the fire was serious, the stairs could have gone from passable to deathtrap in the time it took me to realize the fire was downstairs. Going to a door for the fire extinguisher means the path to, and from, that door is clear of fire.

Now, the smell of smoke seems to have dissipated, the smoke detectors have silenced (and the one to my home monitoring service never did go off), and there seems to be no more problem. Wherever the fire started, it must have burned itself out. I still should call the fire department because of the possibility of the fire smoldering or reigniting, say in the walls. Whatever the trigger was it is likely still there, but I’m banking on the fuel being gone.

But tonight, I’m going to remove the batteries from the smoke detector. I really don’t want to die with that shrill alarm in my ears.

The smoke detectors in this house have a history that I do not know. Often smoke detectors have a little trace of a radioisotope in them (it’s why the inside of your smoke detector has a “nuclear” sticker) like Americium. Americium undergoes beta-decay, meaning as it decays it emits a stream of electrons. These electrons hit a detector and register as current flow. When smoke gets between the detector and the Americium, it absorbs those electrons which the smoke detector takes as an “open” in the circuit (like a wire has been cut) setting off the alarm.

But the thing is, these radioisotopes eventually decay to the point where they are no longer viable. In other words, smoke detectors have a limited shelf life. If they get to be too old, they no longer work. Unfortunately, they all have that push-button “test” which tests the circuit but not their abilities to detect actual smoke. I do not know how long these smoke detectors have been up, so pushing the button won’t tell me anything. I need to know which smoke detectors need to be replaced entirely, and which work fine. The only way to do this is with actual smoke. I was told (from an unreliable source) that there is a device that produces puffs of smoke for this purpose, but if I can’t find that, I guess I’ll have to get special matches designed to smoke. I’ve owned those before, but as far as I know they’re only available from science specialty stores.

Tomorrow Daylight Savings Time begins (if this post is published as anticipated). I’m told smoke detectors should be replaced at least once every ten years (unless they have built in carbon monoxide detectors which need to be replaced more frequently), so this is a good time to start thinking about your smoke detectors. The national push is to replace batteries every time the time changes, so don’t forget to buy new batteries for your smoke detectors. Replace the ones you feel uneasy about, and replace the batteries in all of them. There should be a smoke detector in every room (yes, every room; I have no idea where this morning’s fire was, or is as the case may be, but the nearest detector went off) and hallway. I also highly recommend a carbon monoxide detector, especially if you have gas in the home. Any process involving burning produces at least trace amounts of carbon monoxide, and if your home appliances (gas heat, gas hot water heater, gas stove, and even an attached garage) are not operating correctly, then carbon monoxide may be getting into your home without your knowledge. The symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include headache, drowsiness and death. You really should try to fix the problem before death if you can.

Oh, please don’t tell my friends about the fire in my house. They’ll be concerned and probably yell at me if they find out.


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