Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Smoke Alarums

In theory, I have no problems with smoke alarms. I think they are a fine idea: a brave sentinel standing watch over you and your family even in the dead of night, ready to call out and warn you at the first hint of danger. Yes, certainly, every home should have one--or more than one, positioned strategically for maximum coverage.

And yet I am actively at war with the smoke detector in my house. This is related to my ongoing battle with inadequate kitchen ventilation, which has persisted even after we moved to a new house back in the summer. There's a fan in the hood over the stove, but it just pushes the air through a filter and right back into the kitchen--doing absolutely nothing, as far as I can tell, to diminish foul odors and billows of smoke coming from the stove or oven, both of which feature prominently in my cooking.

Whether I'm trying to get a good crusty sear on a pork chop or roasting bones for stock in the oven, it's about a fifty-fifty proposition that I'll end up madly fanning my kitchen towel back and forth in front of the downstairs smoke detector as its wails its piercing alert and its two comrades upstairs, including the one right outside the Toddler's bedroom, join in the chorus, linked in by the house wiring so that there's not a chance that anyone in the house (or in the surrounding county, for that matter) can fail to know that that jackass is cooking again.

And, since the Toddler goes to bed at seven, it's a safe bet that I'll also get a good earful from The Wife for trying to wake up the baby (even though--somehow--the kid manages to sleep through the racket every time) and for filling the house with choking fumes and for insisting on cooking elaborate meals every night instead of just ordering a pizza like normal families. And often a little bonus abuse from the Seven Year Old, too, for making his ears hurt.

So, it was during one of my latest rounds of mad towel flapping that I noticed a second little button on the smoke detector, right next to the one you press to test the battery. The thing is all white and the text on the button is in raised white letters, so I had to get up on a chair for a closer look before I could make out the words "Push to Hush."

An override button! What a fine idea! The smoke detector in my old house didn't have that handy little feature. It looked like my days of towel-flapping were over.

In fact, I discovered a little later, the hush button could be used proactively, giving the detector "reduced sensitivity" for seven minutes. I could actually put the little thing to sleep before the klaxons went off--so if in the middle of browning some short ribs I began to think "it's starting to get a little smoky in here" (and by now, believe me, I can sense when the smoke alarms are about to be tripped), I have an option other than turning on the UTTERLY USELESS HOOD FAN or opening all the windows (not a great option in February).

There's just one problem. Once you press the Hush button, the damn thing doesn't hush. Instead, it chirps every forty-five seconds. It's a quick little chirp, but it's still 100+ decibels and piercing and plenty loud enough to get The Wife chugging down the stairs to remind me the baby's sleeping (yes, yes, dear, I know!) and The Seven Year Old moaning about how his ears are bleeding and his brain's about to explode (he's a little prone to drama).

I could always turn off the hush mode once the smoky part of the prep had cleared (say, once I'd poured in some wine to end the browning and deglaze the pan), but guess how the geniuses in Smoke Detector Land came up with doing that--do you press the Hush button again? Nope, too easy. Instead you have to press the Test button, which sets off a full-scale 5 second alarm, including the chorus from the comrades upstairs, which brings another visit from The Wife and another visit from the Seven Year old. (And yet, curiously, the Toddler sleeps through all of this. Hope we never have a real fire.)

I know there are probably countless reams of government regulation and the constant spectre of bankrupting lawsuits that smoke detector people have to deal with on a daily basis that have far more of an influence on their designs than the woes of a poor, ventillation-challenged home cook. They've certainly gone above and beyond to make sure there's no way I could accidently hush my smoke detector and not know it and, during the seven minutes it would take for the hush period to end, perish in a sneaky fire I didn't even know was burning.

On several recent occasions my downstairs detector has ended up unplugged from the wall and tossed out onto the back porch in desperation. I know it doesn't do much good out there, but I'm a desperate man.


scott said...

I feel your pain. Our hood is vented to the outdoors and I still have the same problem. Most consumer hoods just don't have the horsepower you need.

Zippy said...

I have the same problem in our RV for some genius placed the smoke alarm almost over the range. You can't even make toast without setting the damn thing off.

A trick I learned is to cover the alarm (before starting to cook) with one of those Saran Quick Covers. No smoke gets picked up by the alarm and no ear-drum piercing alarm. Just don't forget to take it off after cooking! Works like a charm for me.

Robert said...

That's a GREAT idea, Zippy. I just put quick covers on my shopping list

Anonymous said...

So stop whinging and invest in a range hood that vents to the outside and has a blower that is adequate to exhaust the fumes. That greasy filter must be a real fire hazard by now, not to mention the smell of rancid grease that will eventually pervade the kitchen surfaces and ruin paint jobs.

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