11/30/2010 - Carbon Monoxide Safety

Carbon monoxide Safety

Heating devices that use gas, kerosene, or wood as fuel--furnaces, water heaters, and auxiliary heating devices produce  Carbon Monoxide (CO).  The danger of CO accumulation is greatest in northern homes, due to insulation and tight construction, combined with windows that are rarely or never opened in the winter. Although most of us have equipped our homes with smoke detectors, relatively few have considered the equal importance of carbon monoxide detectors. 

Therefore, what kind should we buy, and where should we put them?  As with smoke detectors, there are two basic types of CO detectors: battery-powered and permanently wired, or plug-in, units--and there are pros and conspros and cons to both types.  Battery-powered units require changing battery-sensory units at periodic intervals--usually every two years.  The cost is not inconsiderable (As much as $20 for one unit); also, as with smoke detectors that give a tiny beep at intervals when the battery is low, we may tend to overlook prompt replacement. 

Units that plug into any electrical outlet or are permanently wired to the wall require no such replacements.  However, they will not work during power outages, which may be when they are most needed if one uses auxiliary power or heat sources at such times.  Generators to run lights, gasoline-powered pumps to remove water from basements, and kerosene or propane heaters can produce carbon monoxide in large amounts and often are not properly vented to the outdoors. 

The Consumer Product Safety Commission recommends at least one detector outside each sleeping area.  Because CO and air are nearly identical in weight, detectors can be placed at any height on a wall.  Many people with young children like to place detectors up high--which is another reason to consider a combination of battery-operated and electrical powered units.

Most manufacturers suggest keeping detectors at least 10 to 15 feet away from furnaces, water heaters, and other fuel-burning devices.  Most of these emit short bursts of CO into the air at startup, and closely positioned detectors may sense this burst and sound an alarm.  For the same reason, garages are poor locations for CO detectors.  Other causes of false alarms and malfunctions, although rare, include high humidity and fumes from materials used to clean the units, so instruction manuals should be read carefully. 

Detectors can fail to sound if placed near windows where CO may be diluted by incoming air and quickly whisked away.  Installation behind furniture or curtains that block airflow can also cause problems.  In addition, be sure not to plug a unit into an outlet controlled by a wall switch. 

There are varieties of units on the market in these two basic types, so shop around to determine which best fits your home situation and your budget.