The only way to protect your family from carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning is by installing CO detectors in your home. This odorless, toxic gas is a hazard year-round. When breathed in CO rapidly replaces the oxygen in your bloodstream and results in suffocation. CO also harms protein in tissue cells, which further contributes to a quick death.
If your home has any of these components, you could be at risk for CO poisoning:
- An attached garage
- Combustion heating system
- Gas appliances
- Gas or charcoal grills
- Unvented heaters
- Yard equipment that uses gas
Where does CO come from?
CO is released when there's not enough oxygen for complete combustion. Anything that burns can create this gas, and if vents for dryers, water heaters or furnaces are blocked or improperly installed, it can seep into your home's air. A gas stove creates CO, which is why it should never be used overnight or as a way to heat your home during a power outage.
How can you detect CO?
CO itself has no odor or color, but you and any air-breathing animal will feel the effects of it almost instantly, although the symptoms are often mistaken for something else. Reactions to CO exposure may include:
- Impaired coordination or vision
- Flu-like symptoms
People with heart disease and children, including a fetus, are most vulnerable to CO poisoning. Children have high metabolic rates, which increase their need for oxygen, and they may feel the symptoms of CO poisoning faster than adults.
Choosing Carbon Monoxide Detectors
A home that uses fuel for any purpose needs to have carbon monoxide detectors to keep the family safe. Detectors can be powered by batteries or the home's power supply. Some detectors can be hardwired, even into security systems.
Some of these detectors show readouts of CO levels indoors throughout a 24-hour period, which is useful if a family member is sensitive to lower amounts of CO. You can use this information for monitoring gas appliances to ensure safe CO levels. Make sure the CO detector you choose is UL listed.
Positioning the Detectors
Carbon monoxide detectors require more thoughtful placement than smoke detectors because of the nature of the gas. It's slightly lighter than air, so the detectors should be placed at eye level or higher. The batteries need to be checked monthly, so keeping it accessible will make the job more convenient. Always follow the manufacturer's installation guidelines.
Each floor of your home should have at least one detector 10 to 15 feet from the bedrooms. The detectors should not be used too close to fuel-emitting devices to prevent false alarms. Humidity also interferes with their operation, so don't install them close to kitchens or bathrooms.
What to do When the Alarm Goes Off
Should the alarm go off, get everyone out of the house, including your pets. If anyone shows the slightest symptoms of CO poisoning, call 911. When levels are high, it doesn't take long for CO exposure to overwhelm the body. The paramedics carry oxygen and you'll receive immediate medical attention.
After the crisis passes, you'll have to determine the source of the CO in your home. You may need an expert HVAC or appliance technician to examine your equipment if you don't know what triggered the alarm.
If everything is working as it should, it might be the CO detector itself. They usually last about five years, so it's a good idea to write down the installation date and replace them when they reach the five-year mark.
Preventing Carbon Monoxide Buildups
While carbon monoxide detectors are reliable when properly installed and maintained, preventing CO from building up in the first place is always the best policy. These steps will keep you safe when you have combustion appliances or an attached garage:
- Have your gas heating equipment serviced annually. Professional maintenance will lower your gas consumption and keep you safer. HVAC technicians clean all the parts of the furnace, check the safety systems and verify that the furnace vents properly.
- Change the air filter for your furnace when it's dirty. It's a good idea to check it monthly during the heating season. Dust can enter the furnace through a dirty filter and collect on the heat exchanger. The dust insulates this crucial component of your furnace, resulting in heat exchanger that stays hot longer than the manufacturer intended. Over time, cracks in the exchanger can form with the potential to emit CO into your home's air. It's an expensive repair, and sometimes it's better to replace the furnace instead.
- Leaks in the ductwork can backdraft CO into your home anytime your heating or cooling system runs if you use any gas appliances that vent to the outside.
- Monitor your gas stove's performance, especially if the carbon monoxide detectors go off when you're cooking. The flame for both the burners and the oven should burn blue, with only a small amount of yellow. Yellow flames indicate a lack of oxygen, which will create CO.
- Make sure that your dryer vents to the outdoors to prevent CO from building in your home. Gas water heaters can emit CO indoors if the vent has an obstruction or isn't sloped upward. It's a good idea to have it serviced regularly to verify it's working as it should.
- Avoid running your gas water heater in an enclosed space, since it needs plenty of ventilation. Your water heater can be "red-tagged" if it doesn't have a minimum amount of space.
- Depending on how often you use your fireplace, you'll want a professional chimney sweep to inspect it periodically.
- Avoid running your vehicle in the garage any longer than it takes to start it up and pull it out. Motor vehicles emit enormous amounts of CO, and if the door and common wall have any leaks, CO can enter your home. If you work on vehicles or yard equipment that uses fuel, install a venting fan in an outside wall. Bathroom fans are an inexpensive way to clear the air and pull in fresh air.
- Don't use a barbecue in the garage, since a charcoal grill emits considerable CO. A gas or propane grill emits lower amounts of CO, but it's still not safe to use under roof. These appliances should never be used indoors to warm your home during a power outage. They're considerably more dangerous than running a gas stove for heat, which isn't a safe home-heating option, either.
- Close the doors and windows if you're going to be using yard equipment, or plan to barbecue on a patio adjacent to a door.
- Sitting around a campfire can expose you to high levels of CO. If you don't feel well, try moving away into the fresh air; it might be an overexposure to carbon monoxide creating your symptoms.
- Never use a barbecue inside a tent. If you use ventless tent heaters, make sure there's a bit of fresh air ventilation.
- Some people use carbon monoxide detectors on their boats to prevent CO poisoning. A slow-moving or idling boat can emit a lot of CO. Even standing by a boat whose motor is running can expose you to CO and other noxious gases used in the fuel.
- Driving with your pickup truck's tailgate down and no windows open can pull CO into your vehicle.
For more assistance with your carbon monoxide detectors and heating systems, contact Comfort24-7.com. We can help you find an HVAC contractor in the Chicago Metro area, northwest Indiana or southwest Michigan to help you avoid this dangerous gas.
Written by Randy Gailit