Property maintenance: Are landlords responsible for smoke and carbon monoxide detectors?


One property maintenance question we hear often is, “Who is responsible for making sure smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors are installed and up to code?”

The short answer is, well…both. Landlords are legally required to install smoke detectors in almost every state and carbon monoxide detectors are mandatory for residential properties in 26 states.

After installing, it’s always a good idea to include an addendum to your lease agreement that explicitly states working alarms have been installed. This will protect you from any legal liabilities in the future.

Here’s where the tenants come in: Your lease should also state that tenants are responsible for maintaining the alarms. That means changing batteries and not tampering with them.

Smoke alarms

Smoke detectors: annoying when they go off in the middle of the night, crucial if there’s an emergency. Smoke alarms are legally required by almost every state and for a good reason. According to FEMA, house fires kill approximately 3,000 and injure approximately 20,000 people each year. The risk of dying in a home fire is cut in half in homes with working smoke alarms.

FEMA cautions all homeowners to make sure they purchase a smoke detector that can detect two types of fires- one for fast-burning flames and one for smoldering flames. What’s the difference?

Types of smoke detectors:

Ionization Smoke Detectors are best at detecting the small particles typical of fast, flaming fires but in our tests, all tested poorly for detecting smoky, smoldering fires. Ionization units are prone to false alarms from burnt food and steam, so don’t mount them near a kitchen or bathroom.

Photoelectric Smoke Detectors are best at detecting the large particles typical of smoky, smoldering fires but poor at detecting fast, flaming fires. Photoelectric units are less prone to false alarms from burnt food and steam, so you can install them safely around the kitchen or bathroom.

Dual-Sensor Smoke Detectors combine ionization and photoelectric technology to save you the hassle of installing two separate smoke detectors.

Approval guidelines

Additionally, smoke alarms must meet a certain set of requirements to be approved for multi-family and single family rental units. In order to be approved, the device must:

  1. Display the date of manufacture on the device
  2. Provide a place on the device where the date of installation can be written
  3. Incorporate a hush feature
  4. Incorporate an end-of-life feature that provides notice that the device needs to be replaced; and
  5. Contain a non-replaceable, non-removable battery that is capable of powering the smoke alarm for a minimum of 10 years (this last requirement applies only if the device is battery operated).

In January 2016, a new law went into effect that requires owners of residential rental units to update smoke alarms to comply with current standards. You are not allowed to rent out your unit until you’ve ensured that all devices meet the code. That means that even if you think you’re good, you should probably double-check and update all devices next time you have a tenant move out.

Smoke alarms have a service life of 10 years, and they must be replaced when that time elapses.

Carbon monoxide detectors

Carbon monoxide poisoning occurs when gas fumes are trapped in a small space and inhaled in large quantities into the lungs. The most common symptoms of CO poisoning are a headache, dizziness, weakness, upset stomach, vomiting, chest pain, and confusion. Because the symptoms often feel similar to the flu, people often die from carbon monoxide poisoning before even realizing what’s going on.

While not required by law in some states, carbon monoxide detectors are a smart addition to any rental with fuel-burning appliances such as a furnace, water heater, range, cooktop, or grill.

Even those living in all-electric homes should seriously consider installing carbon monoxide detectors as part of routine property maintenance, since CO can seep into the house from an attached garage or if a backup generator is used too close to your living quarters in the event of a power outage. If something that costs as little as $35 can save lives, why not do it? Plus, many smoke alarms now include a carbon monoxide detector. This one is highly rated by consumers and fire chiefs alike and can be installed with minimum effort.

To learn even more about which aspects of property maintenance landlords are responsible for (and maintenance tools that help you keep track of it all), check out this guide.

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