Smoke alarm requirements for landlords

Posted7/5/2020 6:00 AM

Q: As the owner of a 12-unit apartment building, I encourage my tenants to maintain the batteries in their smoke alarms. However, when tenants move out, I often find the batteries either dead or missing, and sometimes the alarms themselves are missing. Now that I'm selling the property, the buyer's home inspector reported several missing or inoperative alarms. In my neighbor's apartment building, all of the smoke alarms are connected to the electrical wiring, eliminating the need for batteries. What are the basic smoke alarm requirements for landlords?

A: Smoke alarm standards have been gradually upgraded over the years. The requirement to connect alarms to the electrical wiring became affective in 1979. Your building is apparently older than your neighbor's.


The 1979 code, requiring direct wiring of alarms, was enacted specifically because people were not maintaining batteries. However, in 1993 the code was changed again. The new standard requires direct attachment to the wiring, with battery backup as well. This change recognizes the fact that some fires are caused by defective wiring. When electrical fires occur, failure of the power supply can render smoke alarms inoperative, unless batteries are included.

In rental properties, landlords must provide functional smoke alarms in all living units, in compliance with the building code and local ordinances. Unfortunately, alarms can be rendered inoperative by occupants. Property owners can encourage tenants to test alarms occasionally and to maintain batteries, but periodic inspections are advisable to ensure compliance.

Another side of the issue is landlord liability. In some cases, when renters had been the victims of fire and smoke alarms were missing or inoperative, property owners were subjected to criminal prosecution. Therefore, it is a wise precaution to document efforts to maintain functional alarms. This can be done by having tenants sign a smoke alarm agreement and by including a written reminder with each monthly rent receipt, encouraging regular testing of smoke alarms.

Q: The day I moved into my home, I received a rude surprise from the dishwasher. While it was running, I decided to put in one more dirty dish. So I opened the door, but the washer kept running, drenching me and half the kitchen with hot, soapy water. My old dishwasher never did this. When I opened the door, it would stop running. Don't you think my home inspector should have discovered this problem before I bought the house?

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A: Some home inspectors check for this type of defect by opening the dishwasher door while the unit is running. However, that particular test is not a common inspection procedure and is not included in the standards of practice for the home inspection industry.

Dishwasher doors are typically equipped with a safety shut-off switch to prevent surprise showers. Mechanical devices of this kind are prone to occasional failures, but this one is rare. Nevertheless, home inspectors who read this are advised to make this simple test when inspecting dishwashers.

• To write to Barry Stone, visit him on the web at, or write AMG, 1776 Jami Lee Court, Suite 218, San Luis Obispo, CA 94301.

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