Dear Barry,

The smoke alarm in my townhome is wired to the electrical system and is presently inoperative. The fire insurance for the building is paid by the homeowners association. Does this make the association responsible for repairing the alarm? Electricians are very expensive, and I think that whoever pays the fire insurance should pay for smoke alarm repair. And while we’re on the subject, what are the current requirements for smoke alarms? –Pete

Dear Pete,

In collectively owned properties such as townhomes and condominiums, individual owners are responsible for interior conditions, while owners associations maintain all or part of the exterior and common areas. Because smoke alarms are interior fixtures, their maintenance and repair would most likely be the responsibility of resident owners. Exceptions, if any exist, should be specified in the CC&Rs (covenants, codes and restrictions) that set forth the rules for your association.

Smoke alarm requirements have gradually increased in number and complexity since the mid-1970s. The first smoke alarms were battery-powered units and were required near the doorways to all bedrooms. Unfortunately, homeowners and renters often failed to replace dead batteries, sometimes with tragic consequences. This problem was revealed by fire department investigators in the aftermath of major fires. To address this concern, it became mandatory to wire alarms to the electrical system.

The problem with hard-wired alarms was that power failures often occurred during electrical fires, rendering smoke alarms inoperative. Thus, by the early 1990s, hard-wired alarms were required to have battery backup. The new requirements of the 90s also mandated a smoke alarm in each bedroom, at each story of a home, and in basements and cellars.

By the recent turn of the century, code requirements increased again, calling for the interconnection of smoke alarms in homes with more than one alarm. If one alarm were to be activated by smoke, all other alarms within the dwelling would respond. If occupants were sleeping in a bedroom with the door closed, smoke at the opposite end of the home would trigger the bedroom alarm, thereby awakening the sleepers.

In homes that predate current building codes, there is no requirement to upgrade to current smoke alarm standards unless a permit is taken to alter the interior or construct an addition. In situations where there is no access area above the ceiling, where it would be difficult to upgrade to hard-wired alarms, battery-powered alarms are approved. However, some municipalities have enacted smoke alarm requirements that exceed the standards in the building code. Therefore, the local building official or fire department should be consulted for the latest applicable standards in your area.

Home inspectors often discover inoperative smoke alarms, much to the surprise of homeowners. Therefore, periodic testing of smoke alarms is strongly recommended.

As for your concern about the high cost of an electrician, smoke alarm replacement, in most cases, is a simple repair for a competent handyman.

To write to Barry Stone, please visit him on the Web at

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