Since mid-2008, all homes constructed in Florida that have an attached garage or use combustion equipment indoors must have carbon monoxide alarms for safety. If you’re home doesn’t have any alarms, you could be at risk for carbon monoxide (CO) exposure, which can be deadly. The only way to suspect its presence, other than by noticing extreme symptoms, is with CO detectors. The gas is odorless and colorless and affects anything that breathes.
The CO molecule easily replaces oxygen in the blood stream and will cause suffocation because the CO molecule is slightly smaller than oxygen. People most at risk include those with heart conditions, unborn fetuses, children under the age of 4, and the elderly. Symptoms of CO poisoning include:
- Flu-like symptoms
- Vision problems
- Heart pain
Anything that burns is a potential source for CO. Gas appliances, heating systems, vehicle exhaust and fuel-powered yard equipment will emit CO to varying degrees. An attached garage is a hazard because driving the car inside and out again puts CO and other dangerous gases in your garage. Unless the seal between the door and the garage is tight and there are no air leaks in the common wall, CO can leak into your home.
Types of Detectors
Carbon monoxide alarms are available as battery-operated units, hardwired units that can interface with a home security system, or as plug-in units. Some of the plug-in units and many of the hardwired types show periodic levels of CO in your home, which is a good way to monitor the performance of your appliances, particularly a gas furnace.
If you see levels rising while the furnace runs and just after it stops, it’s a good idea to call your HVAC contractor immediately for a system check. Regardless of the kinds of detectors you choose, make sure that they carry the Underwriter’s Laboratory (UL) seal of approval. Detectors are also available that can be placed inside your home’s ductwork for fast detection of CO leaks coming from the furnace.
Carbon Monoxide Detector Placement
How many carbon monoxide alarms and where they’re placed depends on the size of your home and its floorplan layout. Each level should have at least one detector, placed 10 to 15 feet away from any combustion appliance and the connecting door from the garage to the house. Placing the detector too close to combustion appliances may trigger false alarms from harmless trace amounts of CO. Avoid placing them near the kitchen or bathrooms, since humidity interferes with their operation.
For most CO detectors (but not all), the device should be placed on a wall close to the top plate, but not so high that it’s hard to access for testing the alarm and checking the batteries. Read the detector’s instructions to makes sure your installation is correct. Each bedroom corridor of your home should have a detector.
Batteries in carbon monoxide alarms need to be checked monthly, since they use more power than smoke detectors. The life of a detector is about five years, so it’s helpful to note somewhere on the alarm when you purchased or installed it. Most wired batteries have a back-up battery system that should also be checked to maintain your safety during a power outage.
While it’s important to have carbon monoxide alarms in your home to alert you when CO levels build to unsafe levels, prevention is key to keeping your indoor air quality (IAQ) high. These measures will reduce the risk of exposure to this deadly gas:
- Have your gas furnace inspected and serviced annually. The HVAC technician will clean and adjust its parts and verify that all the safety equipment functions as it should. He or she will inspect the flue or chimney, making sure there are no obstructions that could block the exhaust gases from leaving your home. He’ll look at the exhaust pipes to make sure they’re firmly connected and installed.If you notice humidity increasing during the winter when you run a gas furnace, it’s a good idea to have the system checked out in the near future. Gas creates water vapor as it burns, and the extra humidity could be a result of a blocked flue or problems with the system. Gas furnaces are a safe and energy-efficient way to heat, but like any appliance, need to be monitored when they’re in use.
- Change the air filter for the heating system before it’s covered in dust. A dirty filter can cause dust to accumulate inside the furnace and cover the heat exchanger. When this happens, the dust acts as insulation and causes the heat exchanger to remain hotter than it should. Eventually, the metal from which it’s made can weaken and crack. A cracked heat exchanger can emit CO into your home’s air.It’s such a dangerous situation that by law, the technician will have to disable the system until the part is replaced. Since it’s an expensive repair, sometimes the smartest option is to replace the entire furnace.
- Never run your vehicle or combustion yard equipment in the garage without using some ventilation. Even with the garage door fully open, CO still builds. Use a fan to pull the exhaust outside, which will help prevent the carbon monoxide alarms from going off and get rid of the automobile exhaust. Some homeowners who use their garages a lot install a kitchen or bathroom exhaust fan in an exterior wall to improve IAQ.
- Don’t use a gas appliance that’s burning with a yellow flame. It needs to burn blue for the most complete combustion. If you’re not familiar with appliance adjustment or repair, it’s best to have a professional tend to it.
- Periodically check your gas dryer’s vent for an accumulation of lint that could block its venting. Make sure that the dryer vents to the outdoors, as well, to avoid a CO buildup.
- Don’t be tempted to use your stove or oven as a way to heat your home during a power outage. CO levels can climb during prolonged operation. Putting aluminum foil on the floor of an oven will interfere with the free flow of air that the oven requires for safe operation. This represents a CO hazard.
- Be wary of using ventless combustion or tent heaters without cracking open a window or a door. Most of the ventless heaters have oxygen sensors that automatically turn the units off when oxygen levels start to fall, but relying on the sensor alone could put your health and safety at risk, especially if you’re using it in a space away from any carbon monoxide alarms.
- If you use a fireplace, have it professionally checked and cleaned in proportion to how often you use it.
- Don’t sit too close to outdoor fireplaces or campfires to reduce the risk of CO exposure.
- Avoid sitting at the back of a boat or standing by a slow-moving boat or idling motor. If you can smell the exhaust, you’re being exposed to CO, and even when you can’t smell it, it’s still a risk.
- Never use a gas or charcoal grill inside your home or the garage as a heat source or for cooking.
- Generators should never be used indoors or close to an open window or door.
What to Do When an Alarm Sounds
Check on the wellness of all your family members inside the home, including pets. If any of them report or show symptoms, take them outside immediately and call 911. Sometimes alarms do malfunction, but the odds are, the detector went off for a reason.
If you or other family members don’t have CO poisoning symptoms, turn the alarm off and check its batteries and the date you installed it. Alarms may sound as they’re failing. If that’s not the case, you may have a CO problem being created by a malfunctioning appliance, requiring professional diagnosis and repair.
To learn more about carbon monoxide alarms, contact the pros at Aqua Plumbing & Air, serving Sarasota, Bradenton and the surrounding area since 1974.
Written by John Miller
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