What You Need To Know About Carbon Monoxide Detectors
It’s tasteless, it’s odorless, it’s colorless and, what’s worse, it’s the number one cause of accidental poisoning deaths in America. It’s carbon monoxide, a highly poisonous gas formed by the incomplete combustion of carbon. It is present whenever fuel is burned. It is produced by common home appliances, such as gas or oil furnaces, cloths dryers, ranges, ovens, water heaters or unvented space heaters, fireplaces, charcoal grills and wood burning stoves. Fumes from automobiles also contain carbon monoxide and can enter a home through walls or doorways if a car is left running in an attached garage.
The great danger of carbon monoxide is its attraction to hemoglobin in the bloodstream. When breathed in, carbon monoxide bonds with hemoglobin in the blood, displacing the oxygen which cells need to function. When CO is present in the air, it rapidly accumulates in blood, forming a toxic compound known as carboxyhemoglobin (COHb).
Whereas everyone is at risk for carbon monoxide poisoning, individuals with greater oxygen requirements such as unborn babies, infants, children, senior citizens and people with coronary or respiratory problems are at greater risk.
While high levels of exposure to carbon monoxide can result in death, modest levels of exposure can cause flu-like symptoms which range from headaches, fatigue, nausea, dizzy spells, confusion and irritability. As levels of COHb increase, vomiting, loss of consciousness and eventually brain damage can occur, according to reports by the Journal of American Medical Association.
The good news is that if a home is properly vented and is free from malfunctioning appliances, air pressure fluctuations or airway, venting or chimney blockages, carbon monoxide will most likely be safely vented to the outside. However, the more energy-efficient, tightly constructed homes don’t produce the level of free flowing air as was once the case. Therefore, it’s especially important that all fuel-burning appliances are in good working order and are properly exhausted to the exterior.
For example, a noisy furnace may contain a cracked heat exchanger which can be a significant source of carbon monoxide poisoning in the home. For this reason we suggest that the services of a heating professional be enlisted periodically to make an inspection of the home’s heating system to ensure that it is safe and operating at peak performance. This small investment will give you piece of mind, increase your comfort, lower your energy bill and, perhaps, extend the life of the furnace.
Each should be properly exhausted. Check to make sure that the exhaust port at the dryer is securely connected to a vent pipe and to a dampered flue to the exterior. Under no circumstances should a dryer exhaust into living space, a basement, crawl space or attic.
Inspect the flue at the top of the water heater to ensure that it is centered over the exhaust port and that all connections are secure and that the vent cap at the roof is unobstructed. Occasionally, a bird will build a nest a within the vent cap which will inhibit the free flow or air. A pair of binoculars used as an inspection device from the ground can avoid a trip atop the roof.
Exhaust fans should always be operated when using a gas range. As with the other appliances mentioned, the exhaust fan is only as good as its ability to discharge the air to the exterior. A fan which contains dirty filters, oil-laden fan blades or is attached to a poorly assembled flue can render the fan virtually useless. Periodic cleaning of the filters, blades and housing, along with a bit of lubrication, will produce a safer work environment.
Most people know that it’s essential to open the damper at the chimney before burning in the fireplace. What many folks don’t realize is that that’s only one of many safeguards which should be employed. There are several elements which influence proper combustion at the fireplace. Among them are draft, the condition of the fireplace and chimney and the material being burned.
Treated woods, painted wood and scrap lumber should never be burned in the fireplace. Seasoned firewood such as oak, almond and other hardwoods work the best. The fireplace should not be used as a refuse incinerator. Never burn garbage in the fireplace.
Periodic inspection and cleaning by a qualified chimney sweep is essential. This preventative maintenance will serve several purposes. A hazardous build-up of explosive creosote can be removed and serious cracks in the flu or firebox can be detected and repaired. Left untreated these conditions can have a negative impact on proper exhaust and can even result in a chimney fire.
There are a couple of useful ways to improve combustion at the fireplace. One of the simplest is to preheat the flue. This involves bundling some newspaper to create a small torch which can be placed at the opening of the flu just above the firebox. This will heat the cold air in the flu and create a negative pressure condition that will draw air up and out the chimney. Another method is to install a layer of firebrick at the base of the firebox. The bricks needn’t be mortared in. This process elevates the fire and diminishes the size of the firebox which each can contribute to a better burning fire.
Built-in indoor barbecues where quite chic in the fifties and sixties. One of the most important elements of a built-in indoor barbecue is its exhaust system. Under no circumstances should a charcoal grill or gas operated barbecue designed for exterior use be used in the home or other partially enclosed area such as a garage or basement. This is a sure way of producing carbon monoxide poisoning.
Most readers of this column will no doubt be familiar with a smoke detector which can be a life saver in the event of fire in a home. However, many readers may not be familiar with a carbon monoxide detector. A carbon monoxide detector monitors the air in the home to determine if carbon monoxide is present and, in some cases, at what level.
Most detectors come equipped with a loud warning alarm to notify occupants of a potential health hazard. A test button can be used to periodically check that the device is operating properly. It’s a good idea to have a carbon monoxide detector located in or near the furnace room and another in the sleeping areas.
Like smoke detectors, CO detectors are available for use via line voltage or by battery operation. The best part is that most CO detectors can be installed in a matter of minutes.