Carbon Monoxide Detectors Save Lives

What’s colorless, odorless, and one of the most toxic substances you come into contact with everyday? Carbon monoxide (CO). This poisonous gas can be found at your workplace, in your garage, and even in your home. Each year, more than 500 people in the United States die from carbon monoxide poisoning, and thousands are hospitalized.

If you use fuel-burning appliances in your home, it’s a good idea to install carbon monoxide detectors. These vital safety devices prevent poisoning by alerting you to high levels of carbon monoxide in the air before you, your family, or your pets become ill.

The Facts on CO Poisoning

Carbon monoxide is produced as a result of incomplete burning of carbon-containing fuels. Exposure to carbon monoxide reduces the blood's ability to carry oxygen. This becomes a serious problem when you inhale the gas either in high concentrations or slowly over long periods of time. If you are a healthy person, inhaling small amounts might cause you to experience flu-like symptoms such as fatigue, headache, nausea, and dizziness. Prolonged exposure can be far more serious, and can cause loss of consciousness and death. Children, the elderly, and those who are immune-compromised are at most risk from exposure.

Your home may contain a wide variety of fuel-burning appliances: furnaces, room or space heaters, fireplaces, hot water heaters, and stoves, and grills. Automobiles left running in attached garages, barbecues operated inside the house, improperly vented grills or kerosene heaters, and chimneys or vents that are dirty or plugged may also create unsafe levels of carbon monoxide.

Warning Signs of a CO Problem

There are some things you can look out for that might indicate a carbon monoxide problem:

  • Streaks of carbon or soot around the service door of fuel-burning appliances
  • Absence of a draft in your chimney
  • Excessive rusting on flue pipes or appliance jackets
  • Moisture collecting on windows and walls
  • Fallen soot from the fireplace
  • Small amounts of water leaking from bases of chimneys, vents, or flue pipes
  • Damaged or discolored bricks at the top of the chimney
  • Rust on exterior portions of vent pipes  

If you find any of these signs, it’s a good idea to call a qualified technician to identify and repair the problem.

How to Protect Yourself

The best defenses against carbon monoxide poisoning are proper installation, use, and maintenance of household cooking and heating equipment, and safe use of vehicles and other gas-powered equipment. Over time, components of fuel-burning appliances can become damaged or deteriorated. You might want to consider having a qualified technician inspect your appliances yearly to ensure their safety.

For maximum protection, consider going a step further and install carbon monoxide detectors inside your home to provide warning of dangerous levels of carbon monoxide accumulation. Household carbon monoxide detectors measure how much carbon monoxide has accumulated in the air, and are designed to sound an alarm before potentially life-threatening levels of carbon monoxide are reached.

Like smoke detectors, carbon monoxide detectors can be either battery-operated or hard-wired. A battery-operated detector or a plug-in detector with battery backup helps ensure that the unit works even in the case of a power outage.

Installing a CO Detector

Where you install your carbon monoxide detector is important. Your body is most susceptible to the effects of carbon monoxide in the evenings when the house is closed and you are asleep. Therefore, installing one near each bedroom is recommended. You also might want to place detectors on each level of your home, especially near rooms where combustion devices, such as clothes dryers or furnaces, are located. Avoid placing your detector directly on top of or directly across from fuel-burning appliances, since these appliances do emit some carbon monoxide when initially turned on, and can set off a false-alarm.

Carbon monoxide weighs about the same as air, and, unlike smoke that rises, it mixes with air to distribute evenly throughout the house. Therefore, you can install carbon monoxide alarms in nearly any location, unlike smoke detectors, which should be installed high on the walls or ceiling. carbon monoxide detectors installed near an ordinary electrical outlet or high on the wall are equally effective.

There are also combination smoke and carbon monoxide detectors available which save space. Choose the model that best suits your household’s needs. To work properly, detectors should be clear of furniture, draperies, or other obstructions to normal air flow.

Be sure to refer to the manufacturer's instructions for additional information regarding proper use and maintenance. Local codes also may specify requirements for carbon monoxide detectors and their placement.

Test your carbon monoxide detectors at least once a month, following the manufacturer's instructions.

What to Do if Your CO Alarm Sounds

If your alarm sounds, immediately open windows and doors for ventilation. Remember, the carbon monoxide detector is designed to alarm when there are elevated levels of carbon monoxide in your home, and even if you don’t feel any immediate health effects, you may be at risk for exposure. Never ignore the alarm.

If anyone in your home is experiencing symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning—headache, dizziness or other flu-like symptoms—immediately evacuate the house and call the fire department. If no one is experiencing these symptoms, continue to air out your house, turn off fuel-burning appliances, and call a qualified technician to inspect your heating system and appliances as soon as possible.

Because of the ventilation, the carbon monoxide buildup may dissipate by the time help arrives and your problem may appear to be temporarily solved. Do not operate any fuel-burning appliances until you have clearly identified the source and solved the problem.

CO Safety Tips

Having a carbon monoxide detector installed in your home is the most effective way to keep a watch on the levels of carbon monoxide in your home. However, there are some other safety precautions you can also take:

  • Never idle your car in an enclosed garage
  • Never use a gas oven to heat your home, even for a short time
  • Never use a charcoal grill indoors
  • Never sleep in a room heated by a gas or kerosene space heater without proper ventilation
  • Do not use any gasoline-powered engines such as mowers, weed trimmers, snow blowers, chain saws, small engines, or generators in enclosed spaces
  • Keep fuel-burning appliances well-maintained and have them inspected yearly by a qualified technician

A detector can provide added protection against carbon monoxide, but is no substitute for proper use and upkeep of appliances that produce it. Be sure to take adequate measures to prevent you and your family from falling victim to carbon monoxide poisoning.

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Author: Courtney Kreuzwiesner