Where There’s Smoke…Alarms

This house was built in 1888, so one expects a series of problems, degradation, and mishaps. (Check, check, check.) But the most challenging and annoying part of the Pink Palace has been, without hyperbole, the smoke alarms.

The house was a low-income rental for 20 years prior to me buying it from the community development organization. The ceilings were swiss-cheesed with multiple generations of smoke alarms: hard wired, battery only, ancient, new: a veritable “Smoke Alarms through the Ages!” exhibit.

The very first day I spent in the house, I entered to a sharp beep on a regular interval.  I strolled through my new domain following the sound, which led to the back of the house. There were three likely candidates within three square feet.

I had come prepared. I had batteries. I pulled up the encrusted ladder and changed the  first. The alarm let out an ear-drum splitting scream when I pulled the battery, but seemed pacified by the new one. On cue the chirp repeated. I moved to the second, changed the battery. Still with the chirping.   I moved to the third smoke detector and found it was hard-wired. Opening it to find the battery backup set it off, and I could not make it stop. New battery, reconnected, cover on: nothing stopped the screeching.  In a fit of deafened desperation, I ripped it out. Nerves jangled, I climbed off my ladder with the alarm body trailing severed wires. And: “chirp”.

I craned, I strained, I crouched, I climbed. It was slowly driving me mad. How many places could something hide in a tiny empty house?! A final desperate search discovered it,  shoved into the back top shelf of a cabinet above the water heater, behind a collection of burned-out light bulbs.

I have repeated versions of this process now every few months. I found an alarm on the back porch.  I discovered that two alarms were perfectly positioned to go off every time I open the oven door during baking. There was a smoke detector inexplicably leaning in the outer ledge of a window.

Last night I returned from a late dinner date to two unusually agitated dogs. As I brushed my teeth, something started to work my nerves, too. Slowly I recognized it: a high-pitched keening coming from outside the back door. I flung it open and listened. It was a smoke alarm. “Please” I whispered to the universe. “Please let it be the neighbors house”. But it was clearly coming from my garage. As the dogs leaped and pawed with their muddy feet in the pouring rain, I shoved open the garage door and was deafened by the alarm, not chirping but fully sounding. There was no smoke, no fire, just dizzying noise.

I groped along the wall for the light switch, but first my shin came in contact with the spikey pedal of my housemate’s bicycle. It fell, I staggered, the dogs started barking, and my next door neighbor opened his door and snapped on the porch light. The time was roughly midnight by now, and he called out over the barking to ask if I was responsible for the noise and if it would stop soon.

I found the switch, and after shoving aside boxes and another mystery bicycle, I found the offender lying on the garage floor under garden tools. I have no idea how it got there. It was a 10 year version with no removable battery cover: in fact, it said “Do not open, return for repair or replacement.  Radioactive material inside.”

Ignoring the neighbor mouthing at me mutely from his porch, I calmly carried the caterwauling device inside, wrapped it in foil and a plastic bag, pulled a framing hammer from my tool caddy, and pounded it into shards.  It let out a final distorted wimper of a beep. Hammer in hand, I addressed the family of remaining alarms: “Let that be a lesson for you all!”