They may not seem like it, but smoke detectors are one of the most important safety items in a home. Not only can they save your life, but they can also reduce property damage by alerting you to a fire before it takes off.
California law requires that any “dwelling units intended for human occupancy”– also known as homes to us layfolk — have smoke detectors installed per California building code and regulation as of January 2016 [§13113.7(d)(3)]. Essentially, this means that there should be a smoke detector in every bedroom, each hallway leading to the bedrooms, and at least one on each level of the home.
It may be surprising, then, to find out that the operation of a home’s smoke detectors–specifically their batteries–is often a sore spot between landlords and tenants.
In many cases, landlords believe that batteries should be considered a consumable item, much like a light bulb. Therefore, since the tenant is effectively “using” the smoke detector, they should be responsible for, at the very least, replacing the batteries when needed. In this instance, the only time a landlord would replace the battery in a smoke detector is if the detector is malfunctioning and needs replacement.
Tenants, on the other hand, often have no interaction with the smoke detectors, unlike a light bulb that they actively turn on and off; therefore, when the batteries need replacement, they believe it falls on the landlord as general property maintenance.
Unfortunately for landlords, California law is fairly detailed and clear in regards to rentals and their smoke detectors. While the law does not specifically call out batteries, it specifically states that the “the owner of a single-family dwelling that is rented or leased, shall be responsible for testing and maintaining alarms” [§13113.7(d)(2)]. Testing and maintenance are outlined as “installing, repairing, testing, and maintaining” smoke alarms [§13113.7(d)(2)(A)].
The key word here is “maintaining.” Much like you need to change the oil in your car after prolonged use to keep the car functioning optimally, a smoke detector’s battery needs periodic changing – often yearly. As landlords are responsible for smoke detector maintenance, and batteries are required for a smoke detector to function, landlords are responsible to replace bad smoke detector batteries.
Now that does not mean the tenant is off the hook and cannot be charged for batteries!
We’ve seen this scenario too many times: a smoke detector needs a battery, so it chirps. The tenant does not want to hear the chirp, so they remove the bad battery and/or remove the entire smoke detector (I’ve personally been inside homes where every smoke detector is missing its battery). In these cases, because the battery is now missing, dead or not, the landlord can charge the tenant for battery replacement.
When your smoke detector chirps, alert your landlord and/or landlord.