Monday, January 03, 2005

Fire Alarm Escapades

This is not a gardening topic but it may save someone the headache of dealing with malfunctioning fire alarms.

For the past week or so we've been plagued by the fire alarms going off in the early morning hours. This usually happened about 6:00 to 6:30 a.m., intermittently for three days. We have the alarms hardwired so they are all coupled. When one goes off, all go off at the same time. What a din. I found that we have eight alarms scattered throughout the house.

When it first happened I was brushing my teeth so I was running around the house literally foaming at the mouth. Checked to see if there was any smoke. No, ok, so I grabbed a stool and started to pull out all the batteries. It's hard to get your mind in gear that early in the morning especially with 100+ decibels screeching 2 feet above your head. In my muddled brain I thought a battery was going bad (we heard a chirping sound earlier in the week) and that triggered the alarm. The trouble was, which one? Anyway I managed to pull all the batteries but that didn't shut them up so I ran to the circuit breaker, tripped the main breaker and they slowly went off one by one as the juice ran out of their system. Except for one. I could hear it in the distance. Ran upstairs before it stopped but too late, not a peep.

I called the fire department told them it wasn't an emergency but wanted to know what I should do. The dispatcher said, "get out of the house now!" I said, "you don't understand..." he cut me off saying "I know it's cold but get everyone out of the house now" it was below freezing. I told him that there was no evidence of fire or smoke “the alarms are malfunctioning” and "besides we have a 87 year old Alzheimer's patient in the upstairs bedroom” and trying to get her moving even when she's awake and cooperative is no mean feat.

The fire chief was the first one here. After he made note that there was no fire I asked him what caused the alarms to trip. He replied that after 10 years the alarms become unreliable and some start to go bad. His suggestion was to go to Lowes or Home Depot to buy and replace all the alarms. Said it would be about $5.00 apiece. Well maybe 10 or 20 years ago but they're more like $12-13 now. Our neighbor down the street had the same problem but he replaced his without the battery back up thinking, "what are the chances of having a fire when the electricity goes off?" Well, my thinking is in line with Murphy’s law; if it can happen it will. So I paid the $2.50 extra per alarm. Cheap insurance.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

I still needed to solve the problem of finding the last chirping alarm. My wife thought that opening the garage door somehow triggered the alarms. It happened twice when she opened the door. I guessed that the somewhat balky garage door was sending a spike of electricity, triggering the alarms. So I made a note to buy a replacement inside switch. But it happened again even when we used the in-car opener.

After searching over and over, I finally located the missing eighth alarm. It was in the upstairs hallway. I knew there was one in the hallway but two? We thought the builder had hidden an alarm in the attic to get back at the first owner because he was such a bastard.

Well, I finally replaced them all. The fire chief said it would be easy, "just pull out the plug and stick it into the new one--well not quite, because, the plug was of a different configuration and didn't fit. The retaining ring also didn't fit so I had to essentially re-wire and re-install all eight! The new ones have two lights and the alarm that triggers all the others will stay lit so you can tell which one set them off. Cool huh?

I threw the old ones into a box in the basement thinking that I would use them as battery powered alarms around the basement and forgot about them until yesterday when one of them went off. I finally found the offending bugger. I ripped out its battery guts with great relish. This was the malfunctioning alarm that caused all the problems, almost $100 and half a day of my time. The garage door was a red herring. Just a coincidence.

So that was it...except I heard another faint chirping sound in the basement. Good lord it's come back from the dead. After confirming that the offending alarm was truly dead, I found that the carbon monoxide alarm in the basement was indicating a low battery charge. Another coincidence and the chirp we had been hearing for the past week!

I still have an uneasy feeling. I am waiting for the other shoe to drop.

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