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Smoke, heat and carbon monoxide alarms are like most other electronic devices; as long as you take care of them properly they will get the job done. Maintenance on these devices is very basic and should not present problems even for the electronically illiterate.
Check your sensors regularly to make sure that dust does not settle in and clog them. A build up of dust and other particles can prevent the detectors from picking up the presence of smoke or carbon monoxide.
A battery-operated detector will beep and a light will flash indicating time for a new power source. Most fire alarms will last nearly 10 years but should still be checked regularly. When this happens jump on it quickly; do not let the battery run out before replacing it.
Obviously you want to avoid getting them wet since water and electricity have never exactly been a match made in heaven. If they do come into contact with water, carefully dry them off and make sure to test the sensors extensively in the next few days to make sure they still work properly. If there is any noticeable problem after this replace them immediately.
A faulty or damaged alarm is not going to protect you or your family, but they will leave you vulnerable for as long as they are in your house.