Photoelectric Smoke Alarms - and How to Spot an Inferior one

Jake VorsterJake Vorster is the Technical Manager at Smoke Alarm Solutions. He oversees the electrical department and the legislation they follow. Here Jake runs you through the key features of photoelectric smoke alarms and the main differences between them and ionisation alarms:

There are several key differences between the two alarms. Since January 1, 2017 it’s been mandatory to have photoelectric smoke alarms. This is due to the operating principles and their better reliability over ionisation smoke alarms. On that date the Queensland Government outlawed ionisation smoke alarms based on the fact that photoelectric alarms are a superior product. The way they detect smoke is definitely better and they are also much more reliable, faster-acting and have been proven to work better than ionisation alarms.

What this means for consumers is that the photoelectric alarm is faster acting at detecting house-fire smoke and is more reliable than the ionisation alarm. That’s what drove the change with Queensland Fire and Rescue ruling them out for use in homes after January 1, 2017.

The main types are battery operated which, under the new legislation, would have to be a sealed lithium-ion battery to last 10 years, or the traditional hardwired smoke alarm which connects to your consumer mains power or your 240 volt power at home and has a battery backup so that it would still work in the event of a power failure. The alarms are usually inter-connected  either by a cable or wireless technology that links the alarms to each other, so that if one alarm sounds then all alarms sound, which is a better warning to get out of the building.

A question we’re often asked is: how do we know if our alarms are ionisation or the new photoelectric? The ionisation alarms will have the radiation symbol and they’ll have “ionisation” stated on them, whereas the photoelectric alarms will usually have the word “photoelectric” or PE (with a circle around it). Usually the ionisation alarm will have a yellow sticker.

The new 2022 legislation requires all alarms to be interconnected so that means all alarms in the property need to be linked - either wired or wirelessly.

There are cheaper brands on the market that some people source, but there are things to look out for as well.

For a start, make sure it’s an Australian Certified smoke alarm and generally the safest way to do that is to confirm it’s  ActivFire listed. That’s a scheme introduced by the government to make sure that the smoke alarms have their certificate of conformity to the Australian Standard. Generally you can find the ActivFire symbol on most smoke alarms or the AS3786:2014 which indicates it is an Australian Standard smoke alarm and, therefore, suitable for use.

It’s also vital that that the alarm is installed by someone who is qualified to do so and understands the legislative requirements. The very specific locations that, under the new legislation, need to be met. Things like exclusion zones from fans and lights to avoid electrical interference and dead air space (a big issue for smoke alarms and can affect performance). You must cover your bedroom exit points. You must have bedroom alarms and they need to be interconnected.

So you can see how important it is to use a reputable person to install your alarms. If it requires electrical work they need to have an electrical contracting license, which ensures they have the training and also have the public liability insurance to back up their work.

At Smoke Alarm Solutions smoke alarms are what we do. It’s what we specialise in and we’re here to help. If you have any technical questions or need any assistance regarding the new legislative requirements we’re more than happy to help.