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Carbon Monoxide Detectors: Don’t Place Them and Forget Them

Carbon monoxide detectors are affordable, easy-to-install devices every home should have. With the Chicago area's cold winters, we have quite a few months to use our furnaces and fireplaces. As important as they are for keeping us warm, these and certain other appliances also pose a small, yet serious risk of carbon monoxide leakage.

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a colorless, odorless gas that can cause health issues ranging from headaches to unconsciousness and eventual death. Because you can't smell or see this poisonous gas, the only way to know when it's present is by having properly installed and regularly maintained carbon monoxide detectors.

Carbon Monoxide: The Silent Killer

Carbon monoxide leaks can occur in any home using appliances that burn fossil fuels, such as natural gas, oil, propane or wood. Faulty fuel-burning furnaces, ovens, water heaters and fireplaces are among the most common sources.

Other potential sources include portable generators used indoors, gas grills used in a garage, kitchen or enclosed porch, and cars and gardening tools left idling in garages. Good ventilation isn't always enough to prevent a carbon monoxide buildup.

Breathing in CO impairs your body's ability to get enough oxygen. Exposure to this gas causes a range of physical symptoms depending on the degree of exposure. At low concentrations, CO may cause:

  • Mild headache
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Flu-like symptoms, such as a cough and runny nose
  • Chest pain in people who have heart disease

At higher concentrations, symptoms include:

  • An intense, throbbing headache
  • Impaired vision
  • Drowsiness
  • Confusion
  • Co-ordination problems
  • Increased heart rate
  • Chest pain

Eventually, carbon monoxide poisoning can cause you to slip into unconsciousness. At this point, death isn't far away. Even those who recover from severe CO poisoning may suffer from long-lasting symptoms, such as memory loss and coordination problems.

Carbon Monoxide Detectors Are a Must for Every Home

Although it's unlikely, even properly maintained appliances can suddenly develop faults that leak CO into your home. In addition to that risk, you never know when a family member might become distracted and leave the car or lawn mower running in the garage.

If there's carbon monoxide in your home, to protect your health, you'll need to leave the building immediately and go to a place with fresh air. Once safe, you can contact 9-1-1 or the fire department.

Unlike natural gas, which is scented with mercaptan, carbon monoxide can't be detected with the senses alone. Without a detector, if a CO leak happens while you're awake, your first indication is likely to be a dull headache, shortness of breath or other symptoms. If you're lucky, you'll quickly realize what's happening and get out of the house.

The real danger occurs at night when you're asleep. If exposed to CO while sleeping, you can fall into unconsciousness and die without ever experiencing symptoms.

Worse yet, some groups are especially vulnerable to CO poisoning. These include children, expectant mothers, the elderly, and those with respiratory or cardiac problems. Pets, too, are at higher risk. Your young child or small pet may become severely ill before you even realize there's carbon monoxide in your home.

It's not just high concentrations of CO that harm your health. Long-term, low-grade carbon monoxide exposure can cause recurring headaches, trouble concentrating or "brain fog," mood and sleep disturbances, and memory problems. A detector will pick up on low, yet harmful levels of CO so you can address the problem and protect your health.

Given the risks, there's no reason not to install carbon monoxide detectors in the recommended locations throughout your home.

Tips on Finding a Quality Detector

Alarm-equipped carbon monoxide detectors are small devices, usually mounted on the walls, that sense carbon monoxide. When they detect a level that could threaten your health, they sound an alarm that's loud enough to wake you from sleep. This gives you time to evacuate the area before you, your family members or your pets suffer any physical symptoms.

There are dozens of carbon monoxide detectors on the market, but not all offer the same features. To find the best model for your needs, follow these basic guidelines:

  • Review the label -- For the most reliable detectors, look for the UL Mark the words "Single Station Carbon Monoxide Alarm" beside it. This indicates the device has been tested by a nationally recognized testing laboratory, and has an audible alarm and a silence button. UL-certified models sound an alarm if they detect a CO level of 70 parts per million (ppm) or higher. This level is below the amount that could harm a healthy person, but it may pose a threat to infants or other vulnerable individuals.
  • Avoid dual-purpose detectors -- Combination CO/smoke detectors are rarely the best at detecting both CO and smoke. For the most reliable CO detection, choose a device designed expressly to sense carbon monoxide.
  • Know your local regulations -- Ask your state or local housing department about any CO detector regulations that may exist. These can affect the type of detector you should install.
  • Look for recording capability -- Select a model that records the levels of CO in the air over time. This information can alert you to low-level leaks so you can take care of the problem.
  • Check the power source -- If you prefer a detector that's hard-wired into your home's electrical wiring, make sure it has a battery backup so it will still function during a power outage.
  • Choose helpful alert features -- The model you pick should have a low-battery alert to remind you when to change the batteries. Because CO detectors last only around five years, look for a model with an "End of Life" signal to let you know when it's time to buy a new one.

Installing Carbon Monoxide Detectors

Once you've chosen your carbon monoxide detectors, it's important to install them according to the manufacturer's instructions, which vary from model to model. For interconnected, hard-wired alarms, consider calling in a professional for installation. If you plan to hook up your new alarms yourself, there are a few things to keep in mind.

  • The right locations -- Install at least one CO detector on each level of your home. At minimum, you'll need one outside every sleeping area and wherever else your local regulations require. According to Illinois state regulations, a CO detector must be installed within 15 feet of every room used for sleeping. In addition, a detector should be installed at the top of the basement stairs and near the door to the attached garage.
  • The wrong locations -- Carbon monoxide detectors shouldn't be installed in the kitchen, bathroom or any other especially warm, humid area. Keep your detectors 15 to 20 feet away from your furnace, gas oven, water heater, and other large appliances. Don't install a detector the near vents or other breezy parts of the room, where added airflow could cause a false reading. Also avoid areas with direct sunlight.
  • Correct positioning -- CO is lighter than air and will rise toward the ceiling, but warm air near the ceiling can hold the CO down. For this reason, detectors are best mounted a few feet below the ceiling unless the manufacturer's instructions suggest otherwise. Carbon monoxide detectors with digital displays are the exception. These should be mounted where you can easily read them.

Keep CO Detectors in Shape

  • Test regularly -- Once a month, use the test button on your detector to test the device's response. If it's not working correctly, replace it.
  • Clean your detectors -- Follow the manufacturer's cleaning instructions as needed. Use a shop-vac or vacuum cleaner with a hose attachment to remove dust and cobwebs.
  • Keep the batteries fresh -- Replace the batteries on the schedule the manufacturer recommends. You don't have to wait for the low-battery alarm.
  • Know your alarms -- Get familiar with the differences between the sound of your smoke detectors and your CO detectors, as well as their low-battery signals. If the low-battery alarm still sounds after you've put in fresh batteries, leave for a place with fresh air and contact the fire department.
  • Replace when necessary -- Most CO detectors have a lifespan of five years, although some of the newest models may last up to 10 years. Once your detectors' lifespan is up, it's time to get new detectors.

Carbon monoxide detectors offer a last line of defense against CO poisoning, but they're no substitute for proper maintenance of your furnace and other fuel-burning appliances. At least once a year, contact a heating and cooling professional to have your appliances and fireplace inspected for faults.

The rest of the year, periodically check your clothes dryer and furnace vents as well as your fireplace chimney for leaves, animal nests, snow, and other material that could interfere with airflow.

At Comfort24-7.com, we help Chicago, Northwest Indiana, and Southwest Michigan homeowners stay comfortable safely. If you need a pro's help with your furnace, A/C or indoor air quality equipment, try our Find a Contractor service to locate a service provider near you.

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