In these inflationary days, It's nice to get taught in a price war, especially when prices are dropping on a product that could have your life.

Following the pattern of price slashes in ligital watches, electronic calculator and TV games, you're now seeing the same thing happen to electronic smoke detectors.

When they first came out, some of these life-saving devices cost upwards of $90 each. Last year, the price dropped into the [WORD ILLEGIBLE] range and this spring, if you shop around carefully, you might find detectors going for as little as $24. People in the industry say the price could drop again by late summer in special sales to around $15 or so.

"When prices on electronic products get below $20," says one industry marketing man, "you're competing with impulse items and you get a much bigger volume of sales."

An electronic smoke detector certainly ought to be an impulse item but not because of its low cost. Your impulse should be to buy one to put in your apartment, mobile home or house because your life could depend on it.

According to fire marshals, smoke, not flames, is the No. 1 killer in residential fires. Smoke contains large quantities of deadly carbon monoxide and othe toxic gases. Before the flames get to you, you're dead or incapacitated from the smoke.

If, for example, you live in a two-story home, you should get at least two detectors - one for the hall upstairs near your bedrooms and the other downstairs near the kitchen and basement stair area.

There are two types of detectors. One is an ionization type and the other is based on a photo-electric principle. Don't ask me to get into a technical explanation on how each works, but the ion type is usually more sensitive to quick, flash fires with a lot of flames.

The photo type is usually more sensitive to smoldering fires such as those that occur when some guest drops a cigarette ash on your couch. The smoldering fires are often the most dangerous and they're more common.

The experts say you'll do well with either type of detector but suggest that you put the ion type upstairs near the bedrooms for fastern warning with quick fires. They also suggest that you put a photo-electric typ downstairs near the kitchen area to give earlier warning against smoldering fires.

Photo-electric detectors can be more practical in or near the kitchen because they're less inclined to be set off by normal kitchen cooking fumes. Ion detectors can give false alarms around the kitchen area.

If you live in an apartment, mobile home or other one-story dwelling, you may be better off with one detector that experts say combines the best warning characteristics of both ion and photo-electric types.

Consumers' Union and at least one government agency have tested smoke detectors and have found that the ion detector made by Pyr-A-Larm, which sells for around $35, is sensitive to both flash fires and smoldering fires. Pyr-A-Larm also makes Norelco and Sunbeam brand ion detectors and, depending on where you live, these other labels may be $5 to $10 cheaper.

For battery-powered detectors, be sure you know what type batteries they take. Some must take 11-12-volt batteries that cost $7 to $9 to replace and others can take a 9-volt battery that only costs $1.79 to replace.

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