After watching lots of classic TV shows and films – or seeing the depictions of life in the mid-20th century in shows like Mad Men or movies like Animal House – you really have to wonder:
How did all of those people survive all of that drinking?
Drinking to excess may never have been overtly encouraged by society, but it was tacitly accepted for decades. “Three martini lunches” were common in the business world, and crowds of all ages flocked to “Happy Hours” as soon as they got out of work.
Despite the ongoing issue of over-drinking, effective public awareness campaigns and strict enforcement of laws have made many individuals reconsider their decision to have an additional drink before driving.
Myths about how much alcohol you can safely consume without being drunk still persist. “One drink per hour,” “coffee (or even vomiting) will sober you up quickly,” or “alternate beer (or wine) and water and you’ll be fine” were never really true. But with more police on the lookout for drunk drivers, and the lowering of legal blood-alcohol content nearly everywhere, the danger of being cited or even jailed for a DUI has never been greater.
Myths and wives’ tales about “how to tell when you’re drunk” aren’t enough.
These days, you need a personal breathalyzer if you are going to drink and drive.
The breathalyzer, a device widely used by law enforcement today, has its origins dating back to 1938. The early version referred to as “Drunkometers,” utilized chemical-filled footballs that would change color in the presence of alcohol in a driver’s blood. These bulky instruments were only available at police stations and were used to test suspects.
The first real breathalyzer was built in 1954. Its inventor was inspired by the drunkometer but his was a major technological breakthrough, requiring just (in the inventor’s words) “two photo cells, two filters, a device for collecting a breath sample (and) about six wires.” Progress continued, and the first electronic breathalyzer was deployed to police departments in the late 1970s.
Over the years, breathalyzers evolved into sophisticated electronic devices which utilized microprocessors and infrared optical sensors to deliver instantaneous, extremely accurate measurements of blood-alcohol content. Many of today’s personal breathalyzers depend on less-reliable semiconductor detection systems; those are the ones often sold at drugstores. Consumers can also purchase more sophisticated units which use fuel cells as detection technology, and even some very similar to the ones police use – albeit, at a much higher price.
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No member of the Groom+Style review team would normally touch a drop of alcohol, of course, let alone need a personal breathalyzer to use after a night out on the town. But as a public service to our faithful readers, we’ve prevailed on several members of the team to forego their normal teetotaling ways just long enough to review the best personal breathalyzers on the market.
Now that they’ve recovered from their hangovers, they’ve decided to share their findings.
(Before going any further we need to say this: drinking and driving do not mix. If you do drink before getting behind the wheel, you shouldn’t need a breathalyzer to tell you whether you’re OK to drive. If in any way you feel impaired, forget about the breathalyzer – don’t drive. End of story.)
1. BACtrack S80 Breathalyzer
You won’t find many experts who would put a different personal breathalyzer at the top of their rankings – the BACtrack S80 is really that good. BACtrack is considered the gold standard when it comes to manufacturing these machines, and all of their models use a proprietary fuel cell sensor they call Xtend, with platinum electrodes. As a fuel cell unit that does active testing, there’s no chance that contaminants can affect the reliability of results.
The technology allows the company’s breathalyzers to deliver blood-alcohol readings that are accurate to 0.001%, the same benchmark used by law enforcement agencies when they test suspects.
The LED readout shows results between 0.0% and 0.40%; since most jurisdictions consider you intoxicated at 0.08% that means the S80 can read and report levels up to five times the legal limit. This is a surprisingly small breathalyzer with one-touch operation, results show on the screen in ten seconds, it comes with six mouthpieces and it runs on two AA batteries.
Calibration is required once every 6-12 months and costs about $25.
The BACtrack S80 is approved by the FDA, the Department of Transportation and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and is used regularly by hospitals and even some police agencies.
The S80 is somewhat expensive for a personal model, but it’s the best overall breathalyzer you can buy.
Facts and figures for the BACtrack S80 Breathalyzer:
2. BACtrack Trace Breathalyzer
If everything about the S80 sounded great to you except for the price, the review team has a suggestion: check out the BACtrack Trace. It’s virtually the same breathalyzer since it uses the same Xtend fuel sensor technology, but it’s even smaller, even lighter, and about $20 less expensive than the S80.
You’ll obviously have to give up something for the lower price and smaller package, and what you’ll sacrifice is a bit of accuracy. The Trace is accurate to 0.005% instead of 0.001%, which means it will register between 0.085% and 0.075% if you’re testing for a “legal limit” blood-alcohol content of 0.08%. For most users, that’s more than close enough.
The only other differences between the S80 and this breathalyzer are their size and weight.
Like its big brother, the Trace features one-touch operation, requires regular calibration, and has been approved by all major US agencies.
The Trace isn’t quite as accurate as the S80, but it’s still an outstanding personal breathalyzer at a slightly lower price.
More details for the BACtrack Trace Breathalyzer:
3. AlcoMate Revo Fuel-Cell Breathalyzer
How much is convenience worth to you? If your answer is “about 100 bucks” then this AlcoMate model may the right one for your priorities.
It costs about 100 dollars more than the S80, but it never has to be sent back to the factory to be calibrated. Instead, it utilizes pre-calibrated “intelligent” modules that you just swap out once per year, so there’s no downtime for your breathalyzer – and more importantly, the sensors don’t degrade over time as they’re calibrated over and over again.
The fuel cell technology used in the AlcoMate Revo is called “Prism” but it’s similar to BACtrack’s Xtend, able to deliver very accurate BAC readings within seconds. The accuracy of the Revo is just a notch below the S80’s, accurate within 0.005%, and it offers one-touch operation.
It is approved by the Department of Transportation and the US Coast Guard.
The AlcoMate Revo is the only breathalyzer used for testing by the US Navy – so it’s probably good enough for personal use, too. It’s expensive, but the convenience of swappable modules will make it worth the price for some buyers.
A closer look at the AlcoMate Revo Fuel-Cell Breathalyzer:
4. AlcoHAWK Elite Slim Breathalyzer
In the Groom+Style buying guide found below these reviews, we discuss the pros and cons of semiconductor breathalyzers; they’re cheaper than fuel cell models, but generally less accurate. The AlcoHAWK Elite, while being a semiconductor device, is the best and most accurate device we’ve looked at in that category.
The Elite comes in at less than half the price of the lowest-priced fuel cell breathalyzer we’ve looked at so far, and its accuracy is “only” plus-or-minus 0.01% (compared to 0.005% for the BACtrack Trace).
In pragmatic terms, that means that when the machine says your blood-alcohol content is 0.07%, you could really be around 0.08% and over the legal limit. That’s a problem only if you’re counting on this AlcoHAWK to keep you out of jail. Otherwise, it gives you a good approximation of your BAC at a reasonable price.
There’s one-touch operation, and an LED readout of the results within ten seconds.
Buying a good semiconductor breathalyzer gives you the best of both worlds: fairly accurate readings, and a low price. The AlcoHAWK Elite is your best bet in this category.
Specifications for the AlcoHAWK Elite Slim Breathalyzer:
5. BACtrack Mobile Smartphone Breathalyzer
The BACtrack Mobile is a home breathalyzer in danger of falling into the category of “smart appliances,” which don’t necessarily need to be (smart, that is). But if you are completely and irreversibly connected to your phone, we also see the value in this unit, which is the best smartphone breathalyzer you can buy.
There’s one other more tangible advantage. The detector is smaller than any competitive breathalyzer since there’s no need for an LED results screen.
You use the BACtrack Mobile in the same way that you’d use any of their other models, but the BAC results are delivered via Bluetooth to your phone (as long as you’ve downloaded the app).
The app tracks your readings over time, and does have one other interesting feature: so-called ZeroLine technology, which will estimate when your blood-alcohol level will be back to zero. In the “more useless feature category,” this app will also connect you to Uber, if necessary.
In all other respects, this BACtrack is very similar to the company’s other models. It uses Xtend fuel cell technology, it’s accurate to 0.001%, and it needs to be recalibrated regularly. The mobile unit has a lithium-ion battery that’s recharged by USB cable.
We’re not sure there’s a need for a personal breathalyzer that talks to your phone. If you think there is, the BACtrack Mobile is the best of the bunch. It’s also small and very light.
The story of the BACtrack Mobile Smartphone Breathalyzer:
6. AlcoMate Premium AL7000 Professional Breathalyzer
It’s “pro and con” time again. This AlcoMate model is $100 or so less than the Revo unit the G+S team has already reviewed, but it still has replaceable internal modules which end the need to repeatedly send the breathalyzer to the factory for calibration. That’s the good; here’s the not-so-good. The AL-700 still costs about as much as the BACtrack S-80, but it isn’t a fuel cell model. It uses less-reliable semiconductor technology instead.
The bottom line: you’re paying a lot for a machine that’s only one-tenth as sensitive as the S-80 and half as sensitive as the Revo when it comes to detecting blood-alcohol content, but you don’t have to deal with the calibration issue. For some, that’s a welcome tradeoff; an accuracy level of plus-or-minus 0.01% isn’t a lot if you aren’t worried about treading close to that DUI cut-off line. For others who don’t mind sending their machine off to be calibrated every year, much more accurate machines are available for the same money.
The AL-700 is approved by the Department of Transportation for law enforcement use, though, if that helps make up your mind.
Whether the AlcoMate Premium is right for you largely depends on your budget, and how much you’d hate returning your machine to the factory for calibration regularly. We’re not crazy about the tradeoff, but you might be thrilled with it.
Digging deeper on the AlcoMate Premium AL7000 Professional Breathalyzer:
7. BACtrack Keychain Breathalyzer
As we explain in the Groom+Style breathalyzer buying guide lower on this page, we don’t normally recommend keychain breathalyzers. They’re typically sold in liquor, drug and convenience stores at very low prices, and we don’t believe you can rely on the readings they deliver.
If you’re going to purchase one of these small units because of their convenience, though, BACtrack’s record of producing quality breathalyzers makes this the only one we’d consider.
It’s not going to give you detailed, accurate readings like the ones you get from their other products, but you do get results similar to more expensive semiconductor units that cost a lot more than this keychain model with a margin of error of 0.01%.
It weighs about two ounces, fits on a keychain, and will thrill and amaze your friends – and still be relatively accurate. That’s more than we can say for most keychain models.
Keychain breathalyzers aren’t serious blood-alcohol meters, but BACtrack’s is a lot better than most.
What you need to know about the BACtrack Keychain Breathalyzer:
8. Twowings Professional Breathalyzer
Calling this breathalyzer “professional” may be pushing the envelope a bit. No, actually, it’s pushing the envelope a lot, since it’s only accurate to 0.01% on the low end and 0.02% on the high end.
That means a BAC reading of 0.07% on the Twowings, even with its margin of error, may not accurately reflect your blood alcohol content. For this reason, it may not be considered the best blood alcohol tester for precise readings, especially in instances where a more accurate reading is crucial.
However, this is the least expensive, good-quality platinum fuel cell breathalyzer you’ll find on the market. It will hold up for quite a while and give you decent readings if you want to tell whether your child or bartender has been drinking, or want to have some fun with it at parties.
It’s a one-touch model that delivers results in just five seconds.
The Twowings is a cool, low-priced breathalyzer to have around the house, as long as you aren’t going to make life-or-death decisions based on its results.
Specs for the Twowings Professional Breathalyzer:
9. Drager Alcotest 3820 Breathalyzer
We almost didn’t include the Drager 3820 in the Groom+Style rankings, since it’s much more breathalyzer than just about anyone (except police officers) would ever need. Not only is it approved by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, it’s approved as an evidentiary breathalyzer.
In other words, its readings would stand up as evidence in court. That’s how accurate it is.
The Drager uses a proprietary electro-chemical sensor to deliver those accurate results, tested to be within 0.0017%. That may sound a little less accurate than a few of the breathalyzers we’ve already discussed, but here’s the difference: the Drager’s readings don’t “drift” over time, which is highly unusual.
This model is virtually the same as the breathalyzers the company manufactures specifically for law enforcement agencies, which use it for more than 30 million measurements every year.
It works faster and in more extreme temperatures than competitive models, it features one-touch operation plus an automatic reminder when the unit has to be sent for recalibration, and stores the last ten readings it’s taken.
It’s also the most expensive breathalyzer sold for personal use.
The Drager 3820 is designed for professionals, with a price tag to match. But if you want the very best breathalyzer at any cost, this is the one you want.
What you should know about the Drager Alcotest 3820 Breathalyzer:
10. Alco-Screen 2 Minute Saliva Test
OK, you caught us. This isn’t actually a breathalyzer – but since many businesses and parents buy alcohol detection products in order to test employees or children for alcohol use, the review team decided to include these test strips.
The Alco-Screen tests are sold in a box of 24 (with expiration dates that typically are about one year past the purchase date), making them extremely cost-effective at just over $1 per test.
The strips measure the alcohol that’s in saliva, and are able to detect blood-alcohol concentrations higher than 0.02% after a two-minute waiting period. They’re only sensitive to the presence of alcohol for several hours and won’t give you a specific BAC reading; they only tell you if the concentration is higher than 0.02%.
If that’s what you need – they work.
The Alco-Screen is only intended to test for whether someone’s been drinking, not how much they’ve drunk. For that purpose, these strips are well worth their price.
Explaining the Alco-Screen 2 Minute Saliva Test:
Best Breathalyzer Buying Guide
There are a number of reasons that people might want a breathalyzer: to test their kids to see if they’ve been drinking, for “entertainment” purposes at parties, to spot-check employees or bartenders who are suspected of drinking on the job.
But let’s be honest. Most people who buy breathalyzers do it so they can check their blood-alcohol content before driving.
That’s not a bad motivation. Even though drunk-driving fatalities have dropped dramatically in recent years, impaired drivers still kill nearly ten thousand people every year in America alone. And on a more practical level for those deciding whether to start their car, a drunk driving conviction can easily cost many thousands of dollars and even time in prison, just for a first offense.
Personal breathalyzers won’t stop a drunk driver, unless they’re court-ordered machines rigged to prevent a car from starting with an impaired driver behind the wheel. But they can often remove the guesswork for people who think they’re OK to drive, but aren’t 100% certain whether they’d pass a breath test if pulled over at a checkpoint or in a routine traffic stop.
For those folks, it’s important to know what a personal breathalyzer can and can’t do – and that largely depends on the technology the machine uses.
Personal Breathalyzer Technology
There are essentially three methods by which breathalyzers work. One of them, however, isn’t suitable for the kind of personal use you’d generally think about.
An infrared optical scanner measures molecules’ ability to absorb light, and then identifies the molecules to determine whether – and how much – alcohol is present. This type of breathalyzer is the most accurate, since it won’t get confused by other substances or alcohol that’s in “mouth saliva” when the alcohol has recently been consumed.
That’s why readings from infrared optical scanners are the results generally used in court. These machines will last for years as long as they’re calibrated regularly; they’re also very large and extremely expensive, and not the type of breathalyzer you’d use to see whether you should get behind the wheel.
|That leaves two other methods of detecting blood-alcohol content, both of which are commonly used in personal breathalyzers.|
The majority of personal models use this technology, which is based on the fact that alcohol changes the electrical resistivity of the semiconductor, thereby altering how much electricity can be conducted.
Theoretically, the more it changes, the more alcohol that’s in the breath. Why theoretically? Results can be skewed by a number of factors including altitude, climate, “mouth saliva” and other airborne contaminants.
Semiconductor models are light and inexpensive to manufacture, though, so they’ve become ubiquitous, sold everywhere from bars and liquor stores to gas stations.
Are they accurate? It depends on how they’re built, but generally speaking, semiconductor breathalyzers are accurate to 0.01% for a blood-alcohol content of 0.08%. In other words, if you’re considered intoxicated in your state at 0.08% and your breathalyzer registers 0.07% – watch out.
Fuel Cell Breathalyzers
These have become less expensive to produce in recent years, so they’ve become used more often as personal breathalyzers.
In brief, a precious metal electrode inside the unit oxidizes alcohol and turns it into acetic acid; that oxidation creates a stream of electrons which is measured by a second electrode.
The more electrons, the more alcohol in the sample. Fuel cell models aren’t affected by outside factors, but still can be fooled by “mouth alcohol.”
Even so, good ones are twice as accurate as semiconductor versions, accurate up to 0.005% for a blood-alcohol level of 0.08%.
No personal breathalyzer is perfect. Accuracy is greatly affected by the quality of its manufacture, how often it’s been calibrated, and very often by “mouth alcohol.” When using one, remember that it only gives a general indication of blood-alcohol content, and its results may be very different than the machine you have to blow into when you’re on the side of the road with blue lights flashing behind you.
Types of Personal Breathalyzers
There are four basic styles of breathalyzers you can purchase for personal use. We’ll go through them in order of their effectiveness.
Frequently Asked Questions About Breathalyzers
Q: Aren’t “personal breathalyzers” really just a scam?
Q: How do I find the most accurate breathalyzer for personal use?
Q: How do you calibrate a breathalyzer?
Q: How long can a breathalyzer detect the alcohol you’ve drunk?
Q: Will a cold shower, coffee, or eating something, lower my detectable blood-alcohol content?
Q: Does that mean you can’t fool a good breathalyzer?
One of the best features any personal breathalyzer can have is approval from the US Food and Drug Administration, showing that the FDA has tested the model and found that it does what it claims. You may also find that a device has received approvals from other agencies like the Department of Transportation or police departments, another good sign.
Good breathalyzers will be ones that you blow into (known as active testing), not blow over (known as passive testing). As previously discussed, when you don’t blow into the device, airborne contaminants like smoke and hair spray can affect the results. Also, look for disposable mouthpieces (for safety and accuracy reasons) and one-button operation.
For more expensive breathalyzers, check their expected lifespan and how often they need to be calibrated (as well as how to get them calibrated). A high-quality breathalyzer should last as long as five years, with only annual calibration required.
Finally, you’ll want to consider the size of the model and how you plan to use it. If you are serious about buying a breathalyzer, don’t go for the smallest and cheapest one you can find, such as a cheap breathalyzer. The chances are that at best, it will be inaccurate, and at worst, it could be dangerous.