I’ve posted this in the Tech category, despite the subject matter being decidedly low-tech, because I think it needs a modicum more technology thrown at the problem.
An acquaintance in the UK told a harrowing story of being woken in the dead of night by a smoke alarm with a low battery warning. His issue was with the fact that a low battery warning was treated the same as the detection of smoke – by an ear-splitting noise designed to wake the dead. Or, at least, wake the living, to ensure they don’t become the dead.
He was understandably miffed at the apparent urgency of the situation being completely unwarranted. My response? Luxury!
Here in New Zealand, there are advertisements on national television on the importance of installing smoke alarms. Whenever people die in a house fire, there is the inevitable fire service commentary that lives could have been saved if smoke alarms were installed. The fire service will even come around, when they have time, and advise on correct numbers and locations of smoke alarms for your house.
I have 7 smoke alarms in my two storey house. One in each of 3 bedrooms, lounge, dining, study and main hallway. Each takes a 9 volt battery which will last for months. Installing them was no great chore, and the cost was not prohibitive. I appreciate the value of these devices. But at the same time I hate them and I think I understand those situations where smoke alarms were fitted to a house, but didn’t activate due to lack of a battery. It is because they are very badly designed.
The standard smoke alarm in New Zealand has only one point of interaction with the user. That is a push-to-test button which, when pushed, will sound the alarm briefly to prove it is working. There are no lights of any kind. The fun begins when the battery begins to run low.
‘Pip’ goes the smoke alarm. It is a substantially-sub-second, very high pitched tone. These two attributes of the sound make it extremely difficult to determine from which direction it came. To begin with, the pips are about 20 minutes apart. Well long enough to be getting on with doing something else and forget about the device. That is, if you are up and about. If this happens in the middle of the night, it is altogether an extremely annoying prospect.
Sometimes, if we’re especially lucky, the pips only come once an hour or more. The instructions say to change the battery when the pips come two minutes apart. Stuff that! I’m not putting up with these annoying sounds any longer than I have to.
Is it any wonder that people get so annoyed with these things that they leave the battery out?
The first thing that could be done is change the design to emit the pips at a frequency of one per minute from the moment it decides it needs to have it’s battery changed. This escalation business helps no-one.
The second thing that could be done is to accompany the sound with a flash of an LED which takes so little to power it should not be an issue for power drain.
If both of these changes were made, it would be a matter of a few minutes to locate the device in need and change the battery.
It is interesting to note that the devices described in the UK have such a light, and yet emit the full-blown klaxon when the battery is in need of replacing. That’s just going to stupid in the other direction.
A little forethought in the design of these life-saving devices could well save more lives! As they say, it’s not rocket science!