How to Prevent Carbon Monoxide, a.k.a “The Silent Killer”Service Champions
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How to Prevent Carbon Monoxide, a.k.a “The Silent Killer”

February 17th, 2017

A young couple was recently found dead in their Berkeley home due to a 3D printer venting into their residence (CBS SF). A working CO detector could have saved their lives.

When was the last time you tested your carbon monoxide (CO) detectors? If it was over 30 days ago, check again.

Winter is an especially troubling time of year because faulty heating systems are one of the main causes of CO poisoning. A lot of people also seal up or “winterize” their homes to provide more insulation. This tightens up the home for more energy efficiency, but it also contributes to indoor air quality problems, including carbon monoxide poisoning.

What is Carbon Monoxide?

Carbon monoxide is an odorless, tasteless, colorless, and poisonous gas that kills over 400 people in the United States every year (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).

Carbon monoxide is known as “the silent killer” because you cannot see or smell it like you can with fire, smoke, and other harmful substances. Carbon monoxide is a very common gas; it’s created whenever any fossil fuel is burned. This includes the combustion of fuel in vehicles, furnaces, fireplaces, gas stoves, generators, and grills. Without proper ventilation, CO can build up in an enclosed space and poison those inside.

That’s why it is crucial to have a working CO alarm. There are some early symptoms that may be able to tip you off, but by far the best way to prevent CO poisoning in your home is to schedule professional annual maintenance for your heating and fuel-burning systems and making sure you have working carbon monoxide detectors throughout the home.

CO Poisoning Symptoms

By the time you start feeling the symptoms of CO exposure, much of the damage has already been done. So don’t wait until your body tells you something is wrong. Test your CO detectors every 30 days and make sure there is one outside of every sleeping area.

Many people start to experience strange symptoms when under the influence of CO because it reduces your body’s ability to carry oxygen to your brain and other organs. The symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include:

  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Weakness
  • Upset Stomach
  • Hallucinations
  • Vomiting
  • Chest Pain
  • Confusion
  • Death

Many people have described the symptoms as “flu-like,” however, it does not cause a fever. Heavy exposure to CO gas will cause blackouts and death. Someone who is drunk or asleep may die without experiencing any symptoms.

Low-Level CO Monitors

Minor exposure is also harmful, especially to high-risk persons, such as infants, children, pregnant women, the sick and elderly. If you have anyone in the home who may be susceptible to low levels of CO, you might want to consider low-level monitors. These monitors will measure CO levels in real time, but they are not listed by Underwriters Laboratories (UL) in order to reduce the risk of “nuisance alarms.”

The CO detectors that you find online and in stores tend to respond only to moderate and high levels of carbon monoxide. This gives you a false sense of security that your home is free of carbon monoxide. We recommend installing a low-level CO monitor on every floor of your home for added CO protection.

Low-level monitors also help you improve the overall indoor air quality of your home by providing early detection of home health and ventilation issues. Ask your HVAC provider about Low-Level CO Monitors for your home.

How Can I Prevent CO Poisoning?

While there is nothing you can do to stop the production of CO gases whenever fuel is burned, there is a lot you can do to detect carbon monoxide early to protect you and your family.

  • Schedule professional maintenance for your heating system, water heater, generator, and any other fossil-fuel-burning appliance every year (before the heating season begins). We recommend signing up for a home maintenance plan to make sure you never forget this important home maintenance task.
  • Make sure all of your vents are venting gases properly. Never attempt to repair ventilation systems on your own. Ask your HVAC technician to show you what kind of ventilation system you have and how it works. Although most furnaces use “natural ventilation” to expel gases through the roof, some systems have “direct ventilation,” which utilizes flue pipes on the side of your house. Regardless of your ventilation system, you will want it inspected every year by a professional.
  • Inspect your ventilation systems after every snowfall and/or heavy winds and storms.
  • Schedule a professional fireplace and chimney inspection every year (in the fall).
  • Install carbon monoxide (CO) detectors throughout your home and make sure you replace the batteries when they are low (at least once every year).
  • Install CO detectors on every level of the home and outside of every sleeping area.
  • We recommend getting interconnected CO alarms (such as First Alert CO511B) so that when one sounds they all sound.
  • Remember, CO alarms are NOT smoke detectors. You will need BOTH types of alarms on every level of your home and outside every sleeping area.
  • Make sure that your CO alarms have been tested by an independent testing laboratory, such as Underwriters Laboratory (UL).
  • Test your smoke and CO detectors every 30 days and change the batteries at least once a year.
  • Never operate a charcoal grill, gas grill, camp stove, generator, or any other fossil-fuel burning device inside the home or near any doors and windows. Generators should be a minimum 20 feet away from all doors, windows, and vents.
  • Never run a car, truck, or any other vehicle inside a garage if it is attached to the home—not even if the door is wide open.
  • Never use your fireplace or stove if it isn’t properly vented.
  • Never heat your home using your oven. Not only is it very expensive and inefficient, but it will leak carbon monoxide gas into the home.

TL;DR

  • Schedule professional heating and chimney maintenance every year (in the fall).
  • Test CO detectors every 30 days.
  • Change batteries if detector begins to chirp (at least once a year).
  • Chirping can also indicate that a replacement is necessary (check the manufacturer instructions, but most detectors last 5-10 years).
  • Choose interconnected CO alarms.
  • Ask your HVAC contractor about Low-Level CO Monitors.

Carbon Monoxide Alarm Safety Tips

CO Safety Sheet - esfiSource: ESFi

How to Test CO Detectors

  • Check the manufacturer instructions for specific information.
  • Find the “test” button and hold it down until you hear a beeping.
  • If you don’t hear anything, replace the batteries and try again.
  • If you still don’t hear anything, replace your CO detector.
  • Plan on replacing the batteries every 6 months (at least once a year).
  • Repeated chirping is normally an indication that your batteries need to be replaced.
  • If replacing the batteries doesn’t stop the chirping, replace that CO detector.
  • CO detectors last about 5-7 years. Never wait more than 10 years to replace your CO detector.

What to Do If CO Alarm Goes Off

  • Evacuate the home immediately and seek fresh air.
  • Check to make sure all household members, including pets are safe and away from the house.
  • Call 911 from a safe area.
  • Do not reenter the home until you have been given official permission to do so.
  • After officials have deemed it safe to reenter the home, call your local HVAC provider immediately to inspect your home and heating system.

At Service Champions, your safety is our highest priority. Contact the professionals at Service Champions to make sure your heating and ventilation systems are safe and efficient.

Additional CO Resources:
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