Seattle Home Inspector's Blog


Heat-alarm heart attack!

The control and use of fire is what separates humans from the other beasts on the planet.  

When we lived in caves we had to figure out ways to keep smoke from killing us and when we moved into wood structures we had to figure out ways to prevent fire from burning the structures down and/or to allow us time to get out.

Heat-Alarm sensorThis whole process has been quite a process and much of the building code is in place to address how to protect us from  killing ourselves with fire.

We have actually gotten pretty good at it.  The instances of  cows kicking over lanterns resulting in the destruction of whole cities seems remote today.  Most of our worst nightmares with fire today are due to forest fires---caused by both man and nature.

We have gotten so good at it, that many fire departments complain about a lack of real life situations to adequately train fire-fighters in how to fight fires.

In modern residences one of the first lines of defense in saving lives from fire---after of course building the house and products in the house properly---is the modern smoke alarm/detector.

As a Seattle Home Inspector I routinely find the many precursors to modern smoke alarm/detectors.  Some of these early alarm systems were nothing more than wind up bells that would sound when internal components melted.  Other systems were electronic---powered by batteries and/or house electricity.

Most of the time these systems have been abandoned.  

On a recent inspection I found one such system beautifully intact and supposedly still functional---but who knows.  This system had sensors located in every room and were designed to detect excessive temperatures---not smoke.  A typical sensor is pictured above.  The system itself  had a control panel located in the Master Bedroom and would have made one hell of an alarm clock.  I am sure that the thinking was that the parents would be the first to be notified of a problem and then they would alert the rest of the household.  Of course if it was me I would likely have a heart attack and everyone would perish anyway.

Heat-Alarm control panel and bell

Currently, our modern smoke alarm/detectors have to be in all areas of the home so that everyone is alerted simultaneously---a good idea really.  

Even the modern ones can give a person a good startle---literally driving everyone out of the house. 



Charles Buell, Seattle Home Inspector

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Comment balloon 43 commentsCharles Buell • June 18 2011 07:43PM


Thanks for the quick historical overview of our fire protection systems.

How do you feel about sprinkler systems for homes ?



Posted by Nor Yeretsian, Envoy Capitol Realty Inc., Brokerage Toronto (Envoy Capitol Realty Inc.) about 9 years ago

My parents are building and I just found out it's current code here to have an alarm in every bedroom.  Of course it's my parents and I would have wanted it that way.  Sounds like some of the old systems might have alerted the neighbors after the occupants had died of smoke inhalation anyway.

Posted by Tammy Lankford,, Broker GA Lake Sinclair/Eatonton/Milledgeville (Lane Realty Eatonton, GA Lake Sinclair, Milledgeville, 706-485-9668) about 9 years ago

We had heat alarms in our house growing up.  They were hung on the wall in all or most of the rooms but I do not remember any control panel. They had a very loud ring.  Not as piercing as smoke alarms but I remember it being much louder.  One got dropped a time or two when we were painting and went off.

I remember my mother telling me when I was very young that the smoke would have killed us before the fire / heat alarms went off. Not one to mince words....

Posted by Maureen McCabe, Columbus Ohio Real Estate (HER Realtors) about 9 years ago

Oh my gosh yes, that could cause you to have a heart attack and not be able to wake the rest of the household, but what a fun find!

Posted by Laura S. Baker, Realtor (920) 728-4118, First Weber Inc (First Weber Inc) about 9 years ago

Nor, I am not sure you want to get me going on residential fire suppression systems.  How can we avoid them?  I think it is only a matter of time before they are required in all new construction.  When it comes to fire how much is a life worth?  Hard to argue against them for that reason.  That said the number of deaths related to house fires is very small.  In multi-family structures they certainly make sense.  In residential properties they may be more about saving property than lives.  It is a murky place to go to argue against them----because as I said before---what is a human life worth?

Tammy yes---and has been that way for quite a while now.

Maureen I think the type you are talking about was not a "wired" type---simple heat alarm.  Here is a picture of one such wind-up device.

Heat Alarm


Posted by Charles Buell, Seattle Home Inspector (Charles Buell Inspections Inc.) about 9 years ago

Laura, it is so cool looking

Posted by Charles Buell, Seattle Home Inspector (Charles Buell Inspections Inc.) about 9 years ago

I love that old device. I would buy it if I saw it for sale. Neat.

Posted by Sheila Anderson, The Real Estate Whisperer Who Listens 732-715-1133 (Referral Group Incorporated) about 9 years ago


 I hope they do not have any boxing gloves hanging around, a fight might break out ; )

Posted by Donald Hester, NCW Home Inspections, LLC (NCW Home Inspections, LLC) about 9 years ago

Oh yeah then they would have a little Lark's Tongue in Aspect ; )

Posted by Donald Hester, NCW Home Inspections, LLC (NCW Home Inspections, LLC) about 9 years ago

All that looks like the equipment on that space ship many years ago when I was abducted...

Posted by Jay Markanich, Home Inspector - servicing all Northern Virginia (Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC) about 9 years ago

That one Charles looks like something out of the 1950's. WILD.

Posted by Gary Woltal, Assoc. Broker Realtor SFR Dallas Ft. Worth (Keller Williams Realty) about 9 years ago

Thoroughly enjoyed your tutorial on the evolution of fire alarm systems and I always like the different systems and/or situations you find in your inspections!

Posted by Russell Lewis, Broker,CLHMS,GRI (Realty Austin, Austin Texas Real Estate) about 9 years ago

Sheila, I am sure these fall in the world of "collectibles"

Don, maybe :)  You sure are digging into the old Crimson

Jay, I am so glad to see they let you come back unscathed ;)

Gary---probably early 60's

Russell, as a builder I find it especially interesting to inspect houses from the same age as my first one (1979) and find so many of the things that were considered the "latest and greatest" now outdated :)

Posted by Charles Buell, Seattle Home Inspector (Charles Buell Inspections Inc.) about 9 years ago

I'm told there is still a scathe although I can't see it directly.  Only when the mirrors are right.

Posted by Jay Markanich, Home Inspector - servicing all Northern Virginia (Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC) about 9 years ago

Ours were  very that.  There was a 1960's looking  star pattern on them... 

Posted by Maureen McCabe, Columbus Ohio Real Estate (HER Realtors) about 9 years ago

Those dang "chirps" drive me crazy.  I can handle the ones on an 8,9 foot ceiling but did the builder have to install one in the top of the cathedral ceiling in my bedroom????

Posted by Lenn Harley, Real Estate Broker - Virginia & Maryland (Lenn Harley,, MD & VA Homes and Real Estate) about 9 years ago

Now that is very cool looking. What a great focal point in the master bedroom no less! Like you, I would have a heart attack if that went off while I was sleeping... LOL.

Posted by Andrea Swiedler, Realtor, Southern Litchfield County CT (Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices New England Properties) about 9 years ago

Charles, I've never seen one with the heat sensors before. The modern day ones are called smoke detectors for a reason. Thanks for the history lesson.

Posted by Michael Setunsky, Your Commercial Real Estate Link to Northern VA about 9 years ago

Charles, that is one serious fire alarm.  Mercy!  I've put a thousand in the homes my company wires, and It's one of those items we exceed code on every time.  After doing a fire restoration project years ago I can't allow myself to meet code minimums.  Thanks fo the post.

Posted by Mike Cooper, GRI, Your Neighborhood Real Estate Sales Pro (Cornerstone Business Group Inc) about 9 years ago


The band I was in played "Lark's Tongue in Aspect" at a high-school talent show, at that time "Funk" was the most popular, several bands played "Brick House"  The director of the talent show came up to us afterward and said what was that- Star Wars! So yes my Crimson blood runs deep ; ) I will pick a new genre to barb you with.

By the way it was a fun article to read, love that kind of stuff.

Posted by Donald Hester, NCW Home Inspections, LLC (NCW Home Inspections, LLC) about 9 years ago

That's cool. The idea of being able to re-power it by winding it up is like those emergency radios with a hand crank. No batteries to run down. Of course you have to remember to wind it up in the first place.

Posted by Robert Butler, Montreal Home Inspector | Aspect Inspection (Aspect Inspection) about 9 years ago

Charles, I loved hearing the history of smoke alarms! 

Posted by Sharon Parisi, Dallas Homes (United Real Estate Dallas ) about 9 years ago

WOW! Love the looks of that old do you figure it is? Great post!

Posted by Janice MacMillan, Associate Broker (ERA Joyner Realty) about 9 years ago

Jay, I am quite sure it is something only others can see :)

Maureen, was it more like this one?


 Maureen's Heat Alarm

Lenn, I know what you mean---sometimes when I am inspecting one of those "bankowned" houses I get to hear one chirp the whole inspection---they can be hard to locate too :)  To answer your question---yes---required in the bedroom.

Andrea, it would be hard to go to sleep just knowing the dang thing might go off and scare you half to death---but alas---perhaps no worse than a smoke detector going off.

Michael---all in all the modern ones are going to be much better for your health

Mike, they are a good idea

Don, it is quite a song and quite a group---that many that even lived through those times weren't aware of

Robert, hence the little red flag that popped up to tell you it was time to rewind

Sharon, who would have thunk there even was a history :)

Janice, the house was 1960---probably installed then.

Posted by Charles Buell, Seattle Home Inspector (Charles Buell Inspections Inc.) about 9 years ago

Fire alarm systemCHARLES, I remember way back when a person selling fire alarm systems came calling.  He sat us all down, kids too, and went through the scariest selling speech about fires and how we needed to buy this system.  We, naturally, had to buy it since kids were screaming and crying from fear.  It was activated by heat, if I remember correctly, and stayed in the house forever.  From time to time now in my real estate career, I still see these relics.  Good blog.

Here's the picture of one of the antiques I blogged about.

Posted by Barbara S. Duncan, GRI, e-PRO, Executive Broker, Searcy AR (RE/MAX Advantage) about 9 years ago

I think that's it! How funny...

Posted by Maureen McCabe, Columbus Ohio Real Estate (HER Realtors) about 9 years ago

Barbara, that is an equally cool picture---I remember seeing it on your blog.

Maureen---this one was given to me by a buyer after they purchased the house---and have it in my box of fun things to show students.  It is a fairly common one.

Posted by Charles Buell, Seattle Home Inspector (Charles Buell Inspections Inc.) about 9 years ago


Very cool, Thanks for sharing your photos.

Posted by Brad Gotham (Granite Peak Inspection, Inc. ) about 9 years ago

Mr Charles,

I am pretty sure you are mixed up and that device is actually a blood pressure monitor.


Posted by Steven L. Smith, Bellingham WA Home Inspector (King of the House Home Inspection, Inc.) about 9 years ago

The chirping that my esteemed colleague mentioned above me (Lenn in her summer villa cubicle #16) has caught me in the middle of the night more than once. No sleep allowed while this thing beeped me into a punishment similar to the Chinese water drop torture...where water falls on the same place over and over...It is at that time that a fire is most welcomed just to shut the thing post and thank you Charles

Posted by Richie Alan Naggar, agent & author (people first...then business Ran Right Realty ) about 9 years ago

Charles, every home I have ever owned has an alarm system that incorporates hardwired smoke, heat and carbon monoxide detectors. If I somehow sleep through the siren, the alarm company will notify the fire and police department.

There are way too many horror stories of families with young children perishing needlessly.  The person who installed that now antiquated system must have cared for their family very much as it was state of the art then.

Posted by Ray Waisler, NMLS #6621 - Specializing in Jumbo FHA & VA (Finance of America) about 9 years ago

That thing looks huge . . .

Your post reminds me of a story.  Years ago I used to work for a family who owned skilled nursing facilities, and adult board and cares.  And I'm not kidding . . . one of the owners told me they DISCONNECTED the fire alarms in one of their facilities because . . . and I'm not kidding . . . when it rained water leaked into the panel, and caused the alarms to go off.  Rather than fixing the leak, they just disconnected the alarm system.

I stopped working for them a short time later.  They were motivated by evil.

Posted by Carla Muss-Jacobs, RETIRED (RETIRED / State License is Inactive) about 9 years ago

What a great historical referecne! Thank you for sharing it with all of us.

Posted by Kathy Sheehan, Senior Loan Officer (Bay Equity, LLC 770-634-4021) about 9 years ago

Brad, thanks---yes very cool.

Nutsy, just looking at you raises my blood pressure

Richie, those things chirping are some kind of test for sure

Ray, most newer homes are wired this way---one goes off they all go off.

Carla that sounds like the height of irresponsibility

Kathy, thanks

Posted by Charles Buell, Seattle Home Inspector (Charles Buell Inspections Inc.) about 9 years ago

Thanks for the nice reminder about fire safety. I'm going to check all our smoke detectors when I got off my laptop. We don't do that nearly enough. Other than the kitchen one that goes off every once in a while when I'm cooking... lol.


Posted by Mel Ahrens, MBA, Kelly Right Real Estate, Customized Choices for your Real Estate Needs (Kelly Right Real Estate) about 9 years ago

I have seen a more than a few historic fire alarms over the years, but one in such pritine condition, never.

Posted by James Quarello, Connecticut Home Inspector (JRV Home Inspection Services, LLC) about 9 years ago

Charles -- What good would one of these be anyway? If they went off when they sensed extreme heat or their components started to melt, how would that save a person who was exposed to the same extreme heat?  That contraption is very official looking, though.

Posted by Barbara Altieri, REALTOR-Fairfield County CT Homes/Condos For Sale (Kinard Realty Group Fairfield and New Haven County CT Real Estate) about 9 years ago

Wow! I bet that alarm is sure loud when it goes off! Alarms freak me out!

Posted by Lizette Fitzpatrick, Lizette Realty, Lexington KY MLS - Kentucky Homes (Lizette Realty - Richmond KY) about 9 years ago

Chalres, and getting startled is a great thing in these situations. Maybe someday, these objects will be considered art.

Posted by Janice Roosevelt, OICP ABR, ePRO,Ecobroker ( Keller Williams Brandywine Valley ) about 9 years ago

Gretchen, I think most of us are the same way---maybe change the batteries once a year

Jim it is sweet isn't it

Barbara, the heat of fires stratifies a lot so the ceiling gets real hot before the area where you might be sleeping

Lizette, I bet pets loved them too

Janice---yup---they are just doing their job

Posted by Charles Buell, Seattle Home Inspector (Charles Buell Inspections Inc.) about 9 years ago
Wow! That does look as if it belongs in a museum. Makes me think that the original owner of the system was progressive. Many of us didn't get on the bandwagon until the modern smoke alarms
Posted by Vickie Nagy, Vickie Jean the Palm Springs Condo Queen (Coldwell Banker Residential Real Estate) about 9 years ago

Now that's my kind of alarm clock.  Never seen one in a house like that Charles.

Posted by Jack Gilleland (Home Inspection and Investor Services, Clayton) about 9 years ago

Things are changing and smoke alarms are not the exception of it. According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), there were more than 358,500 home fires per year from 2011-2015, so it is quite important to have your smoke alarms functional. 

Posted by Inna Ivchenko, Realtor® • Green • GRI • HAFA • PSC Calabasas CA (Barcode Properties) almost 3 years ago