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Choosing A Breathalyzer - 7 Things You Need To Know To Make The Right Choice - A Breathalyzer Primer


If you're thinking about buying a personal breathalyzer, do you know enough about them to make the right choice?  You will once you read this article.


DUI awareness and the dire consequences of driving while intoxicated have lead to a recent surge in purchases of breath alcohol testers, better know as breathalyzers.   Unfortunately, when it comes to understanding the differences between each make and model most consumers don't have a clue where to begin.


Here's What You Need To Know About Breathalyzers To Make An Informed Decision


1) How A Breathalyzer Works & The Legal Limit

To simplify the process, alcohol is absorbed through your stomach into your blood stream.  The blood then passes through your lungs.  Some alcohol evaporates in your lungs and shows up in your breath as you exhale.  When you blow into a breathalyzer your breath passes over a sensor that interprets the level of alcohol and a formula is applied to extrapolate the blood alcohol content (BAC).


You may already know that the "Legal Limit" in all 50 states is .08 BAC.  At .08 BAC or above you are considered legally intoxicated.  But beware. Many people become impaired at .04 BAC (and lower) and you can be charged with "Driving While Impaired" at .04.  Although it is a lesser offense, it can still be costly and cause some major aggravation. More importantly, you could endanger yourself and others even at these lower BAC levels.



2) Sensor Types

The sensor is the component inside a breathalyzer that reads and interprets your BAC.  For personal use there are two types to consider, fuel cell sensors and semi-conductor sensors. When the breathalyzer is used correctly each of these types of sensors will yield accurate results up to approximately 1.5 X's the legal limit. 


At higher blood alcohol levels (well over the legal limit) fuel cell sensors yield more accurate results.  They are also considerably more expensive to manufacture.  Good quality fuel cell breathalyzers typically cost between $250 and $1500 with the most expensive models being desktop evidential units generally used by police at the station. Keep in mind that there are low quality and high-quality fuel cells manufactured. You will pay more for better quality.


Semi-conductor sensors are more economical to make which helps keep the overall cost of the breathalyzer down.  Depending on the quality of the sensor and other features, good quality breathalyzers with semi-conductor sensors cost between $55.00 and $250.00. As with the fuel-cell breathalyzers, price will often be an indicator of the quality.


3) Calibration


When you first receive your new breathalyzer the sensor is calibrated at the factory to deliver accurate readings.  Over time residue will accumulate on the sensor causing increasingly inaccurate readings. All breathalyzers, with the exception of two models noted below, require recalibration approximately every 6 to 12 months depending on usage. This usually requires packing the breathalyzer up and shipping it back to the manufacturer then waiting a few weeks to get it back.  The cost for this service runs between $20.00 and $50.00 plus the cost of shipping.


Currently, there are only two breathalyzers on the market that do not require factory recalibration.  They are the AlcoMate Premium and the AlcoMate Prestige.  Both of these breathalyzers have "user changeable" sensor modules.  The consumer can easily replace the sensor module in minutes (less than 30 seconds in the AlcoMate Premium) restoring the breathalyzer to "factory-new" calibration.


Avoiding the inconvenience of being without your breathalyzer for a few weeks while it's being re-calibrated and the cost and aggravation of packing it up and shipping it back to the manufacturer make the AlcoMate Premium and AlcoMate Prestige worth serious consideration.


4) Mouth Piece (Active) versus Blow-Over (Passive)

All breathalyzers require that the subject supply a breath sample to the sensor for testing.  The most accurate method is via a mouth piece attached directly to the breathalyzer. This helps ensure that the breath sample is not "contaminated" with air, smoke, etc. from the surrounding environment.  Examples of this technology include the AlcoMate AccuCell, AlcoMate Premium, AlcoMate Prestige, and the Omega Point BreathKey.


The other method is referred to as "blow-over" or passive testing.  The subject puts their mouth about a half inch from the breath intake receiver and blows sharply. Done correctly this method can yield relatively accurate results. However, some air from the surrounding environment can enter the breathalyzer causing less than accurate results.

Some parents will use the blow-over breathalyzer to test teens to see if they have been drinking. In this case accuracy is not an issue. They just need to know if there is alcohol present. The blow-over type is not recommended where accuracy is important.


The advantage to the "blow-over" type breathalyzer is that it is convenient at parties and social gatherings when multiple people are being tested because there is no direct mouth contact and no need to change mouth pieces.  The AlcoScan AL2500 is an example of this type of breathalyzer.


5) Price

For personal use good quality breathalyzers will cost between $55.00 and $300.00.  In most cases the higher the price, the better the product (accuracy, features, etc).  Breathalyzers costing less than $50.00 are generally novelty items - very inaccurate. Don't waste your money.  


6) Approvals

Any breathalyzer worth considering should have the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) approval.  Essentially, that means the FDA tested it and it does what it says it does in the product literature.  Other approvals that confirm that the accuracy levels reported by the breathalyzer manufacturer are consistent with their findings include DOT (Department of Transportation), NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administrations) and U S Coast Guard. 

7) Style

Breathalyzers designed for personal use will either be hand-held or key chain style. We've already discussed hand-held "mouth piece" versus "blow-over" (passive) designs. There are also several breathalyzers on the market designed to fit on your keychain.  All that we have tested, except the BreathKey by Omega Point Systems, are strictly novelty items. The BreathKey is the only key chain model that is FDA Certified and is worth consideration.

A breathalyzer is a valuable personal device that can help you or someone you are with make the right decision when it comes to alcohol and driving. Understanding "the basics" about personal alcohol breathalyzers will help you chose a breathalyzer you can live with for many years to come. You can learn more about specific breathalyzer models with pictures, detailed information and sale prices at