Smoke detector battery low
September 6, 2020 8:47 AM   Subscribe

I have noticed that some people don't seem to change the batteries in their smoke detector when it starts beeping intermittently to indicate a low battery. My neighbors have had their detector beeping for years since I moved in (I always know when their front door is open, because I can hear the beeping in my house). The people I lived next door to at my last apartment had the same proclivity. I notice it on lots of live streams and of videos that people take in their houses. What gives?

This seems to be something that happens in New Jersey? It was not a thing I ever noticed before I moved here (I've lived all over the US), and I believe that all of the videos online that I've seen it in are in New Jersey homes. I can't make heads or tails of this, because the beeping drives me bonkers and I'm not even in the house. I really don't understand this. Has anyone else noticed this? Or if you let your smoke detector beep every 60 seconds, why?
posted by k8lin to Home & Garden (26 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
The noise drives me batty, too. Are your neighbors older folk? People start to lose their high frequency hearing as they age, so they may not notice the chirp, or they may hear it as a soft noise that they can't locate.

Why don't you ask them?
posted by brianogilvie at 9:16 AM on September 6, 2020 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I'm OCD about the low battery chirp and it almost puts me into an instant rage, even walking down the street where some house has it going.

Some people are selectively deaf to it is the only conclusion i can come up with.

Before COVID some city realtor friends had a bimonthly group tour of condos/houses for sale in a different neighborhood of the city, mostly vacant places since it was not a serious buying group, and 1/4 of the places would have smoke detectors with low battery chirps. I seemed to be the only one visibly agitated by the chirp, and have been known to stand outside till they were done it irritated me so.

(coincidentally i just walked into my apartment to a chirp, and promptly changed *all* of the detectors in my unit before logging on here).
posted by TheAdamist at 9:16 AM on September 6, 2020 [9 favorites]

Best answer: As a kid, I had a close friend who lived in a place which beeped for many months in Southern California. From what I know about the family, I suspect the adult was just so totally overwhelmed with more important things - court cases, a very hard job that didn't quite pay the rent, violent relationships - that finding the resources to borrow a ladder in order to reach the thing wasn't something she was capable of doing at the time. The kids got used to it. It drove me absolutely nuts. I'd have at least taken a chair and smashed it if I lived there. (But, then it's going to come out of your deposit.)

On the other hand, my kitchen faucet has been leaking for two years. I fold a towel around the leaky bit, 'cause I'm too lazy to spend an hour of effort and fifteen minutes of salary to replace it. We all have our personal thresholds.
posted by eotvos at 9:17 AM on September 6, 2020 [14 favorites]

As someone who, one upon a time, could've been busted for breaking and entering (to silence an out-of-town neighbor's chirping smoke detector) I sympathize. The problem is deafness -- the same sort of perpetrators who fall asleep in their Barcaloungers, in front of too-loud TV sets. Annoying sounds just don't bother some - misophonia, anyone?
posted by Rash at 9:30 AM on September 6, 2020

Some people don't know that you have to replace the entire detector every ten years, regardless of the battery. So they get the weird battery, drag the ladder around, climb up the ladder, replace the battery, it still makes noises, and they give up. This is *after* they've spent a lot of time trying to figure out which detector is making noises, because somehow it chirps enough to be annoying but not often enough to clearly tell you which one it is.
posted by meowzilla at 10:15 AM on September 6, 2020 [9 favorites]

As someone who has more than once spent half an hour trying to figure out which of the 10 smoke detectors in my house was chirping, I can understand why one might give up and accept that life just involves beeping now.

It was in the crawl space by the water heater. Both times.
posted by aws17576 at 10:44 AM on September 6, 2020 [9 favorites]

Kidde makes a nice 10-year sealed smoke detector with voice warnings. The battery lasts the lifetime of the unit. When it gets to the end, it will tell you "low battery", at which point you replace the entire thing. At around $35, this is cheaper than constantly buying batteries to feed these things every six months, and the added benefit of not having to find a ladder.
posted by jgreco at 11:07 AM on September 6, 2020 [9 favorites]

This is *after* they've spent a lot of time trying to figure out which detector is making noises, because somehow it chirps enough to be annoying but not often enough to clearly tell you which one it is.

I would literally, genuinely like to meet the person who made that particular design decision and punch them right square in their fucking face. Jesus. WHY.
posted by showbiz_liz at 11:11 AM on September 6, 2020 [12 favorites]

Pretty much all new smoke detectors now are either hardwired or the 10-year no-change type, and I think it was only the final generation of old 9-volt detectors that beep at end of life (certainly my mother's and grandparents' detectors did not ever do this), as I am middle aged and had never experienced it until every single one of ours in this house did it over a 6-week period two summers ago, apparently 10 years after the they were installed.

I think the change in style is startling to some people (it was to me, I had no idea) and there is likely to be some uncertainty about whether it is "okay" to swap out for the new ones. Also everyone has large unpainted circles on the wall where every old detector lived and nobody bothered to remove the back plate, and the news ones are about the circumference of a billiard ball.

Maybe offer to help your neighbors, at least? Your house will likely burn down too if theirs catches fire because THEY DON'T HAVE WORKING SMOKE DETECTORS.
posted by Lyn Never at 11:15 AM on September 6, 2020 [1 favorite]

The smoke detectors in my house are mounted high enough that I can only barely reach them from the top of a stepladder. To get one down, having clambered up and stood on tiptoe, I have to insert a screwdriver to depress a tab, then use my other hand to grip the detector (so wide I can only barely span it) and push it hard away from me. It's difficult, not to mention feeling very very unsafe to be doing with nobody else in the house to call an ambulance if I fall.

As they're wired in, the last time one went, I put up with the chirping for a month, sleeping with earplugs every night, in hopes that the battery would give in and die, until I couldn't stand it any more. If I were a couple of inches shorter, I wouldn't have had any choice but to live with it indefinitely.

(And yes, putting it back up is just as difficult as getting it down in the first place... and it's no longer making a maddening noise to incentivise you to do the scary dangerous thing. Which means the manufacturers have accidentally chosen to prioritise having a working backup battery over having a smoke detector at all.)
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 11:18 AM on September 6, 2020 [3 favorites]

I would guess the reason why low battery beeps are infrequent is to conserve the remaining battery life. A detector which beeps more frequently will transition from warning beeps to totally dead and silent more quickly as the battery will be depleted faster. If someone was out of town for a week, their detector gave frequent warning beeps and then died altogether, they could return home to a useless, silent smoke detector and have no clue that it wasn't operational.
posted by Larry David Syndrome at 11:21 AM on September 6, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: As someone who has ignored them in the past, I just can't explain it. I once had a budgie who picked it up and unfortunately would chirp exactly like that for years after the battery was changed.
posted by InkaLomax at 11:31 AM on September 6, 2020 [20 favorites]

As someone who has been clambering on top of chairs with the assistance of stacks of books or whatever to make up the last foot or two necessary to reach the smoke alarms so that I can change the batteries since age six in the 1980s, I share your bafflement.

I can say that there was a certain vintage of detector that will randomly let out a chirp once or twice a month before descending into the regularly scheduled madness of the legitimate low battery alert, so maybe that's what you are hearing. It seemed to be a thing back in the early 00s, which trained me not to seek and destroy..err the very first beep.
posted by wierdo at 11:45 AM on September 6, 2020 [1 favorite]

I don't know, because I can't stand the sound, but the unfortunate result might be the kind of design the alarm in my apartment has: no warning beeps, just straight into a horrible, deafeningly loud sound that woke me up at 6am a few weekends ago. (Worse, I had to get a neighbor to help me because the alarm is on a 20-foot ceiling.) It was so loud that I had to go outside. I can only assume they made it like that so people wouldn't ignore the alarm. I didn't have a new battery, so now I don't have a working smoke alarm.
posted by pinochiette at 11:45 AM on September 6, 2020 [2 favorites]

I discovered disturbingly-recently that my house didn’t have any smoke detectors (the things I thought might be smoke detectors were motion sensors for a long-defunct alarm system).

2. You can get them programmed to tell you what room they’re in, and to link them all together.
3. I stuck mine up with Velcro so if all else fails I can just yank it down without breaking anything.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 12:24 PM on September 6, 2020 [5 favorites]

Call the fire dept. non-emergency #, explain nicely, and they will probably go visit to change the battery, provide a new detector, or help. Smoke detectors save lives and houses.

I cannot tell what the stupid device is saying when it talks, it's horrible design for people who don't hear, but it also beeps.
posted by theora55 at 12:28 PM on September 6, 2020 [4 favorites]

beeping intermittently

This part. Often Very. Intermittently. And relatively quietly.

I can hear as well as anyone and I guarantee there have been at least a couple of times when it's taken me a couple of days to realize that the occasional faint chirp I'm hearing at random moments is, in fact, my smoke alarm, and not somebody else's random electronic thing in a different apartment or building.
posted by soundguy99 at 1:48 PM on September 6, 2020

Best answer: Way back in the 90s, I used to listen to Loveline a lot (a national radio show where people would call in for questions about sex and dating). We could discuss particulars of that show in another thread, but one thing that came up a lot was it was not uncommon for a caller to have a smoke detector low battery beep going off. And when it was pointed out by the hosts, the callers genuinely did not notice it.
posted by umwhat at 3:20 PM on September 6, 2020 [6 favorites]

My mother's old house had a hugely vaulted ceiling over the living room, extra-high because there was a loft in part of it. When the smoke detector at the apex finally gave up the ghost after 15 years, there was no ladder high enough for her to reach it from the living room, and no way she could safely climb a ladder in the loft and lean out over the drop to change batteries or replace it, so it chirped for a good long while.

When she finally couldn't stand it any longer, she ended up climbing a ladder in the loft and using a broom handle to knock it off the wall, then never replaced it. She sold the house a couple of years later. Presumably the new owners replaced it.
posted by telophase at 3:47 PM on September 6, 2020

I went to visit my elderly parents and found that this was happening. Maybe hearing loss made it more tolerable, but they were in "well, this is our life now" mode with it. It didn't seem to occur to them to wonder if it meant something. This was distressing to me in that it represents the beginning of the end for them, to me.
posted by thelonius at 4:04 PM on September 6, 2020 [4 favorites]

Maybe it's just the kind we have, but something about the chirp they make... it's like somebody took a pair of ice tongs and clamped them down on my entire nervous system with them at once somehow. It makes me feel literally enraged, like on a chemical level. I once literally ripped one of the wired ones out of the ceiling because we didn't have the stupid replacement batteries and it was 2am and it just. would. not. fucking. stop.
posted by showbiz_liz at 4:38 PM on September 6, 2020 [10 favorites]

I used to listen to Loveline a lot
Me, too, and I thought of Loveline immediately when I saw this question. Adam Carolla would lose his mind when somebody called and their smoke detector chirped in the background. He was hilarious about that and about how he wanted to be able to turn left on red when alone at an intersection in the middle of the night, not have to sit there like an IDIOT waiting for the light to change for NO REASON.

My issue with them is that they're too hard to stop when they go off for real because you seared a steak or something. I hammered a couple of them to death because they try to kill you with that noise and there is no other way. There needs to be a big red "OFF" button and it needs to work immediately.
posted by Don Pepino at 6:12 PM on September 6, 2020 [3 favorites]

Best answer: My first thought, when you say you hear it through your neighbor's open door, is that is a "door open" indicator of their security system. Not saying it's not beeping smoke alarms, but there are other explanations.
posted by achrise at 6:16 PM on September 6, 2020 [2 favorites]

The smoke alarms in my home are all hard-wired to the mains, but they do have battery backup. Those batteries eventually die and the things do the intermittent beeping. Luckily, the one with a dead battery will also have a blinking LED, so it’s not too hard to find the offender.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:26 PM on September 6, 2020

Your hearing may be more sensitive than most. High pitched noises like alarms are hell for me, but my husband (who has mild deafness due to a habit of attending metal concerts without hearing protection) either doesn't hear them or can't hear them enough for them to be annoying. My understanding is that the higher range is the first thing to go for hearing. Maybe a combo of things?
posted by ninazer0 at 1:36 AM on September 7, 2020

Speaking of noises annoying (although it's about car alarms, not smoke detectors) I've gotta leave this little story here: Laurie Anderson, New Jersey Turnpike
posted by Rash at 9:08 AM on September 7, 2020

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