Old Smoke Alarms Get Smart and Save More Lives with Roost

Except for the Nest Protect and First Alert’s Onelink Wi-Fi Smoke + Carbon Monoxide Alarm, smoke alarms (and their common live-in companions, carbon monoxide detectors) aren’t super-exciting to talk about. Of course, there’s the usual “pre-order yours now” coming-soon cadre of smart smoke/CO detectors clambering for attention. I’ll be one of the first to admit that these two shipping-soon smart smoke/CO alarms do look pretty damn awesome: 1) the Birdi (that includes “unique environmental sensing” to protect occupants “against pollen spikes, allergen outbreaks, harsh UV & emergencies” and supposedly “predicts air pollution and even when it will rain or snow — down to the minute — at your exact location”); and 2) the Halo+ (that offers “an embedded weather radio [that] keeps you informed in the event of a weather threat like a tornado or hurricane.”) In general, though, fire alarms are dull and boring—and a lot of times highly annoying. Batteries suffer from the same lame, yawn-inspiring existence. So you’d think that a battery (snore…) made for smoke/CO detectors (better make that a double espresso…) wouldn’t be the sort of thing you’d want to spend the next several minutes reading about. You should, though, because the new Roost Smart Battery is a unique Wi-Fi-equipped 9-volt battery that just might save your life.

Yes, seriously. According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), over the 2009-2013 time period:

Three of every five home fire deaths resulted from fires in homes with no smoke alarms (38%) or no working smoke alarms (21%).

You don’t need to be a volunteer fireman to realize that if there isn’t a smoke detector in your home, it won’t be able to alert you to a potential fire. The good news is that NFPA surveys indicate that 96% of households in the US have at least one smoke alarm. The bad news is that in homes reporting fires large enough that they should have triggered the alarm, only four out of five battery-powered smoke alarms actually did their job.

I’d be happy about an 80% success rate in just about anything—except for neurosurgery…and smoke alarms. 80% is a pretty shitty reliability rate. If your car only started eight times out of ten, you’d be pretty pissed off. If your parachute only opened 80% of the time, well, you’d be pretty stupid to go skydiving.

So what’s up with the 20% of the time when smoke alarms don’t operate? The NFPA found that:

  • Almost half (46%) of the smoke alarms had missing or disconnected batteries. Nuisance alarms were the leading reason for disconnected smoke alarms.
  • Dead batteries caused one-quarter (24%) of the smoke alarm failures.

“Missing or disconnected batteries”? Yep, guilty as charged. I’ve yanked the battery out of more than one shrieking alarm in my time. The problem is, invariably—just like everyone else who ever removed the battery to silence a smoke alarm—I forgot to put the battery back in the alarm after the smoke had cleared.

Most people don’t know that Albert Einstein theorized that smoke/CO alarms will only chirp (to let you know the battery is running low on power) between the hours of midnight and 5 AM—and most often at 3 AM. A corollary to the 3 AM Theorem is that the alarm will only chirp during that time period if the occupants of the house are asleep. At 3 AM, I’m not in the mood to find a new battery and replace the soon-to-be-dead one. So, as the saying goes, it’s out with the old battery…and in with nothing. I’m going back to bed.

“Dead batteries”? I’m sure this has happened in my house, but since I don’t test my smoke alarms every month, as is recommended, I have no clue.

That’s why I think the Roost Smart Battery is such a good idea, and it’s one that’s worth both talking about and spending $35 for. In a clamshell, the Roost Smart Battery is a replacement for your existing fire/CO alarm’s 9-volt battery. It doesn’t matter how new or old it is, if your current alarm uses a 9-volt battery, you’re good to go.

The Roost is more than a battery replacement, though. Here’s what it’s supposed to do for you. First of all, it’ll notify you via the Roost app on your smart phone that the alarm is going off. So if you’re 1,000 miles away, you can call a friend or family member who likes you enough to drive to your home and check it out. Second, the Roost will share alerts with whichever family, friends, and emergency contacts you enter into the app. But it’ll only contact the folks on the list if you don’t respond to the alert on your smart phone. Third, the Roost will notify you when the battery is running low so you can replace the battery well before the 3 AM chirping begins.

The Roost hardware consists of two sections: a lithium battery and a Wi-Fi-equipped (802.11 b/g/n) electronics package. Although the lithium battery component is not rechargeable, it is replaceable after its expected five year lifespan runs out. After you get the replacement, you pop off the electronics package mounted on the bottom of the battery and snap it on the new battery. Then you can (and should) recycle the old one battery pack.

The physical installation is as simple as removing the old battery and inserting the Roost. I found the most difficult part of the process was figuring out how to open the old smoke detector’s lid. (I hate those damn things…) Actually, in my specific case, the install was a little harder than that. The first alarm opened after the review sample from Roost arrived turned out to use two AA batteries rather than a single 9-volt. The Roost Smart Battery is only available in a 9-volt form factor at the moment, so make sure your alarm uses a 9-volt if you’re interested.

Because the Roost uses its built-in Wi-Fi to communicate with your home’s wireless network and, ultimately, to the Roost app on your iOS or Android phone, you need to set up the correct network parameters in the Roost. It’s an extremely easy and mostly automated process, though. The app walks you through the steps, including placing the new battery sideways on a flat surface with the battery’s “sound hole” less than 1/2 inch away from the speakers in your smartphone. The phone emits a series of vibrations (put your pets in another room) which are picked up by a sensor on the back side of the battery. The buzzing is translated by the Roost, and, if all goes well, the battery will beep to indicate success.

If something goes wrong during the sonic setup session, the Roost will beep a number of beeps corresponding to the associated error code. It took me three tries to get the Roost configured, but it was such a short amount of time that it didn’t bother me. Roost has what I consider to be an extremely helpful support site along with a few videos that cover the process.

At CES2016 this January, Roost announced integration with IFTTT. IFTTT is an internet-based automating service that allows you to create some very powerful (and some just plain silly) connections between smart devices and online services by using a simple statement in the form of “If this then that.” There are a lot of preconfigured IFTTT “recipes” on the IFTTT site, but one of the most useful ones tells your Nest thermostat to turn on the HVAC fan in order to clear the room of smoke each time the alarm is triggered. There’s a recipe for having the service call your phone or you can have it send you an email whenever the alarm goes off. You can also use a recipe for turning on your Philips Hue lights if the alarm sounds so you can see what’s going on immediately.

As I said at the beginning of this piece, smoke/CO detectors and batteries are boring subjects to talk about. The Roost Smart Battery just made them exciting again. And $35 each ($65 in a two-pack) is a pretty small price to pay for that kind of excitement—oh, and for the lifesaving aspect, too.