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What You Do Not Know About Carbon Monoxide

One of the most common and deadly gases in homes is carbon monoxide (CO). It's odorless and invisible and can come from a carbon monoxide leak from indoor appliances that use combustible fuel. In our region, a lot of homes use natural gas as a heating fuel, for cooking, heating water and drying clothes.

Where Else Does CO Come From?

There are many more sources of CO that many homeowners are unaware of, including:

  • Unvented kerosene and gas heaters
  • Poorly maintained combustion heating systems
  • Ductwork leaks
  • Attached garages
  • Gas and electric ovens 
  • Barbecues of all kinds
  • Generators 
  • Campfires
  • Fireplaces
  • Tent heaters

Why Is CO so Problematic?

When combustion is incomplete, it produces CO. The CO gradually replaces oxygen in your bloodstream as you breathe. If you inhale enough of it, it will deprive your body of oxygen, eventually causing unconsciousness and death. Because the only way to detect it is with CO detectors or by noticing symptoms, it's a life-threatening hazard.

What Are the Symptoms?

Headaches, dizziness, nausea and sleepiness are the most common reactions to carbon monoxide poisoning. Some people mistake them for the flu, but if they leave the area, the symptoms gradually disappear. People who have heart or respiratory problems, the elderly and very young, along with pregnant women and their fetuses are most at risk.

What Are the Best Prevention Measures?

  • HVAC maintenance. If you're one of the many homeowners who heats with gas, it's critical to have your heating system checked by a professional once a year. The service includes a complete inspection, adjustment and cleaning of all the parts.
  • Ductwork inspections. The contractor should also check your ductwork for leaks, which can emit carbon monoxide even during the summer. If you use gas appliances, a ductwork leak can pull CO created by vented gas appliances into the ducts and distribute it throughout your home.
  • Air filter changes. Keeping the air filter clean for your heating system reduces the odds of developing a cracked heat exchanger that can cause a carbon monoxide leak. Such a leak could require an expensive heat exchanger repair or a full furnace replacement.
  • Appliance maintenance. Periodic maintenance and adjustment of water heaters, dryers and stoves improves their safety and performance. When selecting someone to work on your appliances, ask them if they use handheld CO detectors that measure the amount of CO in the air, even at low levels. If they don't, find a provider who does. Visual inspections may not show a carbon monoxide leak.
  • Garage sealing. If you park your car in a garage that's attached to your home, you're at risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. The best way to avoid it from the garage is to apply weatherstripping around the common door between your home and the garage. Check the joint along the floor and ceiling, and anywhere that pipes or wires enter your home from the garage and seal with caulk or expanding foam.
  • Unvented heaters. Use unvented space or fireplace heaters sparingly or not at all. These devices are only as good as the sensors they use to detect oxygen levels. If the sensor fails, you can be exposed to high CO levels.

What About CO Detectors?

Besides preventing a carbon monoxide leak with regular maintenance, a detector is your only means of protecting yourself and family members from this dangerous gas. Many states including Illinois, Michigan and Indiana require CO detectors in all homes.

The detectors need to be installed at eye level or higher, and from 12 to 15 feet away from CO sources to minimize false alarms. Each level of your home should have at least one detector. If you're phasing them in, put the first near the master bedroom. Keeping them away from moisture-laden bathrooms and kitchens helps lengthen their lives. Batteries should be checked monthly.

Some detectors can be hardwired into your home and give periodic readouts of CO levels, useful if you have older gas appliances. If you have family members who are at higher risk of CO, you can purchase detectors that are highly sensitive to even low levels of CO indoors.

What's Next?

If you want an inspection to head off problems with carbon monoxide poisoning this winter or prevent a carbon monoxide leak, contact to find a contractor in Chicagoland, southwestern Michigan or northwestern Indiana who can help.

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