Monday, February 28, 2011

On the Fire Alarm Low-Battery Warning in the Middle of the Night

Every day contains 24 hours. Of those 24 hours, there are 1,440 minutes. Within these minutes are 86,400 seconds. That's a lot of seconds when you think about it. Seriously, it would take you a whole day to count that high if you counted once per second.

Consider now that during any given day, most people get somewhere between 6 and 8 hours of sleep. Me? I'm running on about 6 1/2 hours these days, which consists of 23,400 seconds. This seems like a lot of seconds, but not really when compared to the total of 86,400 in a day; it's just over 27%.

Yet, for reasons I can not even begin to fathom, it's in this 27% of my life that the fire alarm low-battery beeping almost always goes off. I have to include the word "almost" there, because I have one errant data point which prevents me from excluding it. Indeed, in the entirety of my adult life, only one time -- one time! -- has the fire alarm low-battery beeping begun during daylight hours when I was not comfortably sleeping.

Why is this? One would think that this incessant beeping would occur rather randomly, as every battery should have a fairly even chance to discharge below the needed threshold at any time of the day. Nevertheless, it is not so. I didn't ace statistics, so I can't precisely quantify the chances that the alarm would (almost) always go off in those 23,400 seconds, but just looking at the percentage, I'd assume the odds should be roughly 1 in 4.

Yet, so it happened that last night at 4:08 in the morning, I was very rudely awoken by the incessant PEEP! of the low-battery alarm. I knew immediately what it was. I also felt pretty lucky that I knew which alarm was going off -- the one in my room. (Last time this happened, it took me about ten minutes of stumbling around to figure out which one was actually going off due to the acoustics of my house ... I ended up pulling the batteries from 3 different alarms in the middle of the night before I found the right one!)

So, you might be able to image me, half-awake but fully-annoyed, stumbling around looking for a chair so that I could climb up and pull the battery. The first chair I was tempted to grab was the one we keep in our room which has a broken leg. It's stable enough to sit on, but only when properly positioned. I was wise enough to skip that one.

Instead I went out into the hallway and got a folding chair from by the computer desk. Turns out that folding chairs aren't very tall. Since I'm not, either, this wasn't very convenient.

Getting the battery out of the alarm involved me, still half-asleep, balancing on the rickety folding chair and standing on my tippy-toes with my arms fully extended above me trying to remove the battery. The little door that holds the battery in didn't want to open. After several tries that hurt my blood-deprived (remember: arms above my head) and sleepy fingers, I finally got it open and took the battery out.

Then I went back out to the hallway where we have a drawer full of batteries, turned the light on (I squinted in the bright light, trying very hard to not wake myself up even more), and dug around until I found a new 9 volt battery -- still in its case. I tore the box open and went back to my room, expecting to quickly pop the battery in and go back to bed.

Well, it didn't quite go that way. After installing it in a manner that I thought was correct, I attempted to close the little door that holds the battery in place. It was even more uncooperative upon closing. I tried hitting it gently to close it (keep in mind that I'm still half asleep, standing on my tippy-toes on a rickety chair, stretching my arms high above my head) and the whole alarm came off the ceiling! Somehow I had managed to jar it loose and it was then dangling from the ceiling by the wires that plug the alarm in to the house power. The loose wires caused the alarm to beep several times in rapid succession.

By this time, I'm keenly aware that my fumbling around was causing my hypoglycemic wife, who sleeps rather poorly, to wake up more and more. I finally gave up, unplugged the stupid thing altogether, put the chair aside with the alarm on the floor next to it so we wouldn't trip over it in the stupor of our morning, and went back to bed. I rolled over, annoyed but still quite sleepy, and quickly went back to sleep.

An hour later, much too soon, the morning alarm went off.

Without going through the rather difficult effort of studying the hardware in question, one could easily conclude that the fire alarm companies have actively created alarms that go off in the middle of the night. Perhaps it's a ploy on their part to ensure that somebody is around to hear it when it does. And why do they have to make them produce that really high-pitched PEEP!, which screams at you in the middle of the night? Given today's electronic capabilities, can't they program in a kind and gentle voice that casually says, "Excuse me, but the battery in this fire alarm needs to be changed."?

Or perhaps the batteries' discharge rate is more directly related to thermal cycles, and discharge more in the relative cold of the night. Or perhaps the time that I insert the battery (i.e. during the day) is directly affecting the time when it discharges (i.e. late at night). I would assume this would be rather random based on the battery's make, model, and production batch.

It could be any one of these things. However, absent any direct scientific explanation, I'm unfortunately forced to conclude instead that this whole thing is a manifestation of my typical bad luck.

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