Sleepless nights and false alarms

Image courtesy  of Lieu Xian Feng via Flickr


I can find many reasons not to sleep. Money. Planning. Children. Over eating. Hunger. Heat. Cold. You name it. But perhaps the most irritating is the alarm. Car alarms, burglar alarms, smoke detectors and, the latest for me, carbon monoxide alarms.

I can’t seem to shake off the conviction that there is a group of people shaking with malevolent glee at the thought of the havoc they can create by insisting that everyone has multiple alarms and then making sure they malfunction. Because we all know we need them. The dangers of fire are obvious, the threat posed by carbon monoxide is relentlessly emphasised by builders and safety experts, the prevalence of car thieves is pronounced in the papers all the time.

Maybe car alarms are getting better now but there was a time when haggard and sleep deprived car owners could be seen leaning out of windows and throwing their car keys into the street, shouting ‘Just take the car and let me sleep’.

Wait till they’re asleep…

My particular beef this week though, is not car alarms but domestic ones. We have sophisticated systems at home, a result of buying a new build house. It seems that smoke alarms and carbon monoxide alarms in the system work on a combination of battery and mains power. When the batteries run out, they emit an irritating beep at regular intervals. This never happens in the daytime but only when the householder is likely to be asleep.

The first thing that then happens is that the occupants stagger from their beds, bang into furniture, trip over the dog and clatter down the stairs. This is followed by the realisation that there are alarms on each floor and the noise has to be traced to its source. The beep immediately stops. Back to bed. Doze off. The beep starts again. More clattering around. The language gets more colourful. Several minutes are spent staring at a detector, willing it to beep. It doesn’t. Back to bed. After a few more iterations, the offending alarm is identified, disabled and peace is restored. Restored, that is, until one of the other alarms does the same. The procedure is repeated.

The alarms disabled, a less regular beeping continues. The mains board is located, the circuit switch flipped, sleep is regained.

Two nights later, the malevolent forces at alarm control denied that more misery is called for and sometime after midnight, as sleep is once more achieved, a carbon monoxide alarm starts to beep. The owners manual refers to it as a chirp but that is a highly inappropriate, cheerful word for an irritating sound. This time there is nothing the victims can do. Disabling the smoke detectors was not difficult but the carbon monoxide ones are tough. It looks like they should unscrew but there is some kind of hindrance. A google search shows that there should be a pin which can be removed to enable them to be unscrewed. This is a lie.

The rescue

In the end, the householders are reduced to ringing the emergency line for help. They send someone out. This involves a couple of hours drinking tea and waiting. Salvation eventually arrives, the alarm does unscrew – there is a hole into which a screwdriver must be inserted so that the unit can be removed. Not a pin. Once unscrewed, it can be turned off. Bliss. The necessary gas checks are carried out. We all know it’s a malfunction, but they have to be carried out. The rescuer departs in his white van. The household returns to bed. Just after 3 a.m. Sleep.

At 6 a.m. another alarm starts to beep. The man knows how it works now. The woman doesn’t even stir. Struggling out of bed, bleary eyed, the poor unfortunate climbs on a chair, disables the alarm, and returns to bed. Sleep.

At 7.15 a.m. the third alarm starts to beep. The exercise is repeated. The day begins.

The aftermath

Some time later, there is a follow up call from the emergency service. Was everything properly dealt with? Yes it was. Were we aware of the dangers of CO poisoning? Yes we were. Were we telling our friends and family of the importance of this? Actually we were telling our friends and family what a pain these things were and promising ourselves that we’d go for simpler systems that we could more easily be disabled, but ‘yes’ was the official response.  Incident closed, except for the purchase and installation of new detectors.

In theory this is just a matter of buying new parts to slot into the existing bases, in practice the smoke detectors are now new models and the whole thing needs changing. So, we’re reinstating. But questions remain. Why does it have to be so complicated that something designed to save lives becomes an object of hatred? And why, oh why, did the house builders (step forward Cala Homes) not have the common decency to warn us that these things had batteries which would all run out after five years? Forgiveness will come, just as soon as we’ve caught up on some sleep.

Tony Earnshaw

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