Revised state law could force homeowners to upgrade their smoke detectors

An update to Illinois’ smoke detector law could force homeowners to make an upgrade.

The revised state law requires an alarm with a 10-year sealed battery be installed in all dwellings that don’t already have hardwired smoke detectors. That means many homes will be replacing the basic 9-volt battery units that have been around for some time. Phil Zaleski, executive director of the Illinois Fire Safety Alliance, says safety concerns drove the change.

“In residential fire deaths, approximately 67 percent of the homes where someone is found dead, there is a smoke alarm that is not working or where a battery has been removed from the smoke alarm,” Zaleski said. “This removes the opportunity to disable the smoke alarm.”

Zaleski said that units near the kitchen sometimes are turned off for convenience. The new alarms instead come equipped with a “hush button” that allows residents to temporarily turn off the smoke detector for 15 minutes.

Zaleski says more than 15 states around the country have a similar law, along with some major cities that have adopted an ordinance covering their residents. There are upfront costs, as the 10-year units generally cost about $15, about three times as much as the basic 9-volt alarms. But Zaleski said the switch should save money over time.

“With the 10-year battery, you never have to have those battery replacement costs,” Zaleski said. “So you’re going to save yourself $40 or $50 over the life of each smoke alarm in your home. If you have a multi-level home with multiple bedrooms, that can add up.”

Enforcement will be left largely to local authorities.

“It’s done at a local level,” Zaleski said. “It will be the responsibility of the fire departments. Whether they are responding to an EMS call inside a home or something else, hopefully they are looking for this when they enter a home.”

While fines are technically possible for violations, Zaleski said he’s never heard of an incident where that’s been the outcome. He says it’s far more likely authorities will simply work with residents to find a solution.

“A lot of the fire departments across the state have installation programs in place in which they’ll actually bring out free smoke alarms to the residents and install them,” Zaleski said. “They’re not looking to fine the residents, they’re not looking to make money.”

Any home with hard-wired smoke detectors is exempt from the law, meaning most homes built since 1988 shouldn’t have to make a change. Homes with smoke detectors running on a low-powered radio frequency or wi-fi don’t have to comply.

Also exempt are Chicago residents, who received a carve-out from the mandate.

“There was a bit of resistance when working with them, and what we didn’t want to have happen is to not make a change for the other nine million residents in the state,” Zaleski said. “It’s for everybody outside of the Chicago borders.”

The deadline to make the switch is the end of 2022.