The dying beep of a life-saving device

Note: This column appears in the 3/3 issue of The Glendale Star and the 3/4 issue of the Peoria Times

Not long ago my wife called me from a friend’s house to help walk them through a pseudo-emergency. Our friend’s smoke alarm was losing battery power and was beeping intermittently, yet incessantly.

I received the call not because I am a manly man, or because I am adept at diffusing such devices. Quite the opposite with regards to both, actually. I do, however, have major experience with beeping alarms of all varieties. Nevermind that my solutions to these beeping problems have been, for the most part, temporary and/or wrong. I mean, they had to call someone.

My experience with beeping smoke alarms began when we still lived back east. Apparently, these devices lose battery power during extreme weather, so whenever the temperature outside dipped below a certain point and our heating system couldn’t keep up, the intermittent beeps would start. This always—always—happened around 3 a.m., and my wife would jump up worried the house was on fire and begin the evacuation process. I would assure her it was just the battery, and then I would change said battery on the smoke alarm, which wouldn’t work, so I would change it again, and then again.

Changing the battery, thinking it had worked, and then, after crawling back in bed, hearing a faint “beeeep” is one of the great thrills of home ownership. Eventually—after pulling several of these devices out of the ceiling in fits of frustration and stomping on them “Office Space” fax machine-style—I realized the beeps would continue for a while after the battery was changed. When would they stop? Who knew? Wednesday, maybe? It was our favorite game!

The West Valley, though not privy to extreme cold, still boasts complex and outdated smoke alarms that have the battery life of a rechargeable toothbrush. A few factors here make matters even worse. For starters, we now have like, 10 smoke alarms in the house, so when one is losing battery power and beeping, I have to go on a wild goose chase to discover which one it is. Meanwhile, our dog, who would fight an elephant but who is deathly afraid of these beeps, runs around the house barking in an attempt to get outside. Also, our ceilings are much higher here—my head is never more than six inches away from any ceiling in New Jersey—and so I have to chase the beep while carrying a broomstick (for the reset button; never works) and/or our 12-foot ladder.

As if that’s not enough … Unaware our smoke alarms doubled as carbon monoxide detectors, we purchased two separate carbon monoxide detectors for our home inspection when we became foster parents. They plug directly into an outlet and have a battery for back-up power. Somehow, these batteries still get drained. When they beep, my wife, worried carbon monoxide has leaked into the home, jumps up and yells, “We’re not going to die a slow death!” and begins the evacuation process.

The first time I encountered this problem, I simply pulled the carbon monoxide detector out of the outlet. This was the worst decision I have ever made in my entire life. It resulted in one, louder, sustained, ear-piercing beep, and I was convinced either the device or myself was going to spontaneously combust right then and there. I needed a screwdriver to remove the battery, and by the time I was able to accomplish this amidst the chaos and confusion, my ears were ringing and my wife and daughter were huddled in the middle of the street.

So yeah, I have experience. Based on that, I calmly informed my wife to tell our friend to change the battery 12 times and then rip the alarm off the ceiling and smash it to pieces. It was—I feel like I could end each one of my columns with this sentiment—a good thing I was there to help.

The pinnacle of technology.