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Carbon Monoxide Is Deadly — Ensure Your Home Is Safe With Well-Placed Detectors

Published on: September 11, 2013

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a common odorless, colorless gas that causes thousands of hospital visits and hundreds of deaths every year around the country. Carbon monoxide detectors are designed to protect you and your family from exposure to this potentially lethal gas. These detectors cost little and are simple to install, yet they may just save your life someday.

With the mild winters in the Southeast, we aren’t as dependent on gas and propane furnaces as those in the North. Because of this, it’s easy to assume CO detectors aren’t really necessary in our area. The truth is, though, there are many sources of CO and there’s no excuse for not having detectors.

Carbon monoxide comes from the incomplete combustion of fuels such as natural gas, propane, kerosene, gasoline and even wood. The main sources of indoor carbon monoxide are:

  • Leaking fuel-burning ovens, furnaces, water heaters and other appliances
  • Poorly adjusted fuel-burning appliances
  • Backdrafting from a furnace
  • Leaking fireplace and wood stove chimneys
  • Car exhaust from an attached garage

Most homes have small amounts of carbon monoxide in the air, but these low levels aren’t harmful. Though homes with gas ovens tend to have higher amounts of CO than those without, these levels generally won’t bother a healthy person. They may, however, cause discomfort for someone with a lung or heart condition. Unborn babies, infants, the elderly and small pets are also especially sensitive to carbon monoxide.

The problem is compounded in homes without good ventilation. Lack of ventilation is an even greater problem in winter when fumes from your furnace and oven build up quickly because the windows are rarely opened.

How Carbon Monoxide Harms Your Health

Red blood cells take up CO before they take up oxygen. When the air contains high concentrations of carbon monoxide, red blood cells become full of CO and have no room left for the oxygen they need. Your whole body then becomes deprived of oxygen, causing physical symptoms ranging from minor fatigue to death.

Naturally, the more carbon monoxide you breath in, the worse your symptoms will be.

Low concentrations – Even slightly above average amounts of CO can leave you feeling weak, tired and short of breath. Someone with a heart condition may also experience chest pain. These symptoms should never be ignored because they can damage your health over the long term. What’s more, if there’s a CO leak in your home, it should be repaired before it worsens. Good carbon monoxide detectors will alert you to these low concentrations so you can identify the source of the problem and address it.

Moderate concentrations – Higher CO levels cause dizziness, headaches, confusion, impaired coordination, blurred vision, nausea and vomiting. You may also have flu-like symptoms such as muscle pain and coughing. If you find you have these symptoms at home, but they clear up when you go out, chances are you have dangerously high levels of carbon monoxide or another pollutant in your home.

High concentrations
– At high concentrations, CO causes loss of consciousness and, eventually, death. Even someone who regains consciousness after CO poisoning may suffer organ and/or brain damage.

Carbon Monoxide Detectors Are Essential

Quality carbon monoxide detectors are highly sensitive to unusual amounts of CO in the air. When they detect an amount above a safe level, they sound an audible alarm. Having the right amount of good CO detectors correctly placed in your home offers several benefits.

Early warning – Because carbon monoxide detectors sense even the slightest CO poisoning risk, they protect the most vulnerable members of your household. If you’re a healthy adult, by the time you notice a leak, the CO may have already harmed someone else in the home. If your baby’s fussy and your dog seems lethargic, these may be signs of carbon monoxide in the air, but they’re very easy signs to overlook. A carbon monoxide detector will alert you to problems before anyone suffers harm.

Safety while you sleep
– While you’re awake, you’re likely to notice symptoms of moderate carbon monoxide exposure. Although you may feel ill, you’ll still have time to leave the house before serious symptoms set in. The real danger occurs at night. If CO leaks into your home when you’re asleep, you may fall into unconsciousness before any earlier symptoms wake you. Once you’re unconsciousness, organ damage and death are an imminent risk.

Long-term health protection – Some homes have minor, ongoing carbon monoxide problems from a poorly adjusted oven or furnace or even a seemingly well-maintained fireplace. While the exact effects of long-term, low-level CO exposure are still unknown, continual exposure to a poisonous gas is never great for your health. Over the long term, it may cause impaired memory, loss of cognitive function, and changes in behavior. What’s more, you’ll be left suffering low-grade symptoms. Installing carbon monoxide detectors will let you know if the fatigue and headaches you attributed to long workdays are actually due to CO exposure.

Choosing Your Carbon Monoxide Detectors

A CO detector sounds an alarm when it detects an abnormal concentration of carbon monoxide in the air. Some models provide a digital readout of the CO concentration and track CO levels over time so you can see when concentrations were unusually high, even if they didn’t set off the alarm.

What counts as an “abnormal” carbon monoxide level varies by manufacturer. That’s partly because the acceptable levels of carbon monoxide in a home also vary.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a home without a gas stove will have a CO level of between 0.5 to 5 parts per million (ppm). If you cook with gas, your levels can rise to 5 to 15 pmm, which is still not considered dangerous. A level of 30 ppm or higher suggests a problem with the gas stove or another source of excess carbon monoxide.

Some models of CO detectors alert you to minor amounts of CO that may come from normal use of a gas stove. Others don’t go off until the CO concentration has reached a dangerous level, giving you no early warning.

Fortunately, there is one standard you can rely on. For the highest level of protection, choose a CO detector that meets UL 2034 requirements, the UL Standard for Safety of Single and Multiple Station Carbon Monoxide Alarms.

Installing Your Carbon Monoxide Detectors

Even if your home is small, you’ll almost certainly need more than one CO detector to maintain good indoor air quality and keep your family safe. To work effectively, the detectors must be placed properly. Ideal installation locations vary by manufacturer, so always follow the manufacturer’s directions when you’re installing your detectors. Beyond that, general placement guidelines can help you decide where to put your detectors.

  • Keep detectors at least 15 feet away from fuel-burning appliances such as a gas oven and humid areas such as the bathroom.
  • Place at least one detector on every floor of your home.
  • Install a detector within 15 feet of every bedroom. These detectors are critical for waking you in case of a dangerous leak that occurs while you’re asleep.
  • Put a detector within 10 feet of the door that separates your home from your attached garage.
  • Replace your carbon monoxide detectors on schedule. Most are designed to work for just two to six years.

Reduce Your Risk of CO Exposure

While UL 2034 CO detectors are your first line of defense against CO poisoning, there’s a lot you can do to keep your home’s CO levels to a minimum.

  • Maintain correct adjustment on your gas appliances. Over time, a gas oven’s air shutter may come out of adjustment and leave you with a suboptimal mix of gas and air. If you’re not sure how to adjust your appliances, call a heating and cooling technician or your gas company.
  • Use the exhaust fan over your gas oven to vent fumes outdoors.
  • Use only vented space heaters indoors.
  • Keep the flue open when you’re using your fireplace.
  • Install a wood stove that’s sized appropriately for your home and meets EPA emission standards. The door should fit tightly to ensure no fumes escape.
  • Call a heating and cooling technician to inspect and clean your heating system every year before heating season begins. Your annual check-up should include your furnace, fireplace, and wood stove and their vents or chimneys.
  • Never let a vehicle idle in an attached garage. The fumes can leak into your home.

For something so inexpensive, carbon monoxide detectors provide invaluable benefits. Just putting up the cheapest model you find won’t offer you much protection, though. These detectors can only do their job when well designed and correctly placed.

If you’re trying to choose high-quality CO detectors or wondering where and how to install them, visit AirConditioningSouthEast.com to find an expert HVAC contractor who can help. Throughout the Southeast U.S., including Mississippi, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and Alabama, we help homeowners connect with reliable local HVAC technicians for all their home comfort needs.