Carbon Monoxide Detectors: Ultimate Guide

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a potentially hazardous gas found in the home. Known as the “silent killer,” CO gas is colorless, odorless, tasteless and non-irritating, but it can result in unconsciousness, brain damage or death. Because of this, more than 400 people suffer fatal carbon monoxide poisoning each year, a higher fatality rate versus any other type of poisoning.

As the weather cools off, you insulate your home for the winter and trust in heating appliances to stay warm. This is where the danger of carbon monoxide poisoning is highest. Thankfully you can protect your family from a gas leak in a variety of ways. One of the most successful methods is to add CO detectors in your home. Use this guide to help you understand where carbon monoxide is produced and how to take full advantage of your CO detectors.

What produces carbon monoxide in a house?

Carbon monoxide is a byproduct of something burned. Therefore, this gas is generated whenever a fuel source is ignited, including natural gas, propane, oil, charcoal, gasoline, woo, and more. Common causes of carbon monoxide in a house consist of:

  • Clogged clothes dryer vent
  • Malfunctioning water heater
  • Furnace or boiler with a broken heat exchanger
  • Closed fireplace flue while a fire is lit
  • Improperly vented gas or wood stove
  • Vehicle idling in the garage
  • Portable generator, grill, power tool or lawn equipment operating in the garage

Do smoke detectors recognize carbon monoxide?

No, smoke detectors do not detect carbon monoxide. Alternatively, they start an alarm when they recognize a certain level of smoke generated by a fire. Possessing functional smoke detectors reduces the risk of dying in a house fire by around 55 percent.

Smoke detectors are offered in two primary types—ionization detectors and photoelectric detectors. Ionization detection functions well with fast-moving fires that emit large flames, while photoelectric models are more suited for smoldering, smoky fires. Some newer smoke detectors incorporate both forms of alarms in a single unit to increase the chance of recognizing a fire, no matter how it burns.

Obviously, smoke detectors and CO alarms are similarly important home safety devices. If you check the ceiling and notice an alarm of some kind, you won't always realize whether it’s a smoke detector or a carbon monoxide alarm. The visual contrast is based on the brand and model you have. Here are a few factors to remember:

  • Quality devices are clearly labeled. If not, look for a brand and model number on the back of the detector and look it up online. You should also find a manufacture date. If the device is more than 10 years old, replace it as soon as possible.
  • Plug-in devices that draw power through an outlet are typically carbon monoxide alarms94. The device is supposed to be labeled as such.
  • Some alarms are really two-in-one, detecting both smoke and carbon monoxide with a separate indicator light for each. Still, it can be hard to tell if there's no label on the front, so reviewing the manufacturing details on the back is your best bet.

How many carbon monoxide detectors do I need in my home?

The number of CO alarms you need is determined by your home’s size, number of floors and bedroom arrangement. Use these guidelines to ensure total coverage:

  • Install carbon monoxide detectors near wherever people sleep: CO gas exposure is most prevalent at night when furnaces must run constantly to keep your home warm. As a result, each bedroom should have a carbon monoxide alarm installed around 15 feet of the door. If two bedroom doors are less than 30 feet apart, one detector is enough.
  • Put in detectors on all floors:
    Dense carbon monoxide gas can become trapped on a single floor of your home, so do your best to have at least one CO detector on all floors.
  • Install detectors within 10 feet of the internal garage door: A surprising number of people end up leaving their cars running in the garage, resulting in dangerous carbon monoxide gas, even when the large garage door is completely open. A CO alarm immediately inside the door—and in the room over the garage—alerts you of elevated carbon monoxide levels entering your home.
  • Put in detectors at the appropriate height: Carbon monoxide features a weight similar to air, but it’s commonly carried upward in the hot air created by combustion appliances. Putting in detectors near the ceiling is a good way to catch this rising air. Models with digital readouts are best located at eye level to make sure they're easy to read.
  • Install detectors about 15 feet from combustion appliances: Some fuel-burning machines give off a small, non-toxic amount of carbon monoxide when they start. This breaks up quickly, but in situations where a CO detector is installed right next to it, it might trigger false alarms.
  • Have detectors away from extreme heat and humidity: Carbon monoxide detectors have certain tolerances for heat and humidity. To reduce false alarms, avoid installing them in bathrooms, in harsh sunlight, near air vents, or close to heat-generating appliances.

How do I test/troubleshoot a carbon monoxide sensor?

Depending on the design, the manufacturer will sometimes encourage monthly testing and resetting to ensure proper functionality. Also, swap out the batteries in battery-powered units twice a year. For hardwired units, replace the backup battery annually or when the alarm is chirping, whichever happens first. Then, replace the CO detector completely every 10 years or according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

How to test your carbon monoxide alarm

It only takes a minute to test your CO sensor. Read the instruction manual for directions unique to your unit, with the knowledge that testing follows this general routine:

  • Press and hold the Test button. It will sometimes take 5 to 20 seconds for the alarm to go off.
  • Loud beeping signifies the detector is functioning correctly.
  • Let go of the Test button and wait for two fast beeps, a flash or both. If the device goes on beeping when you let go of the button, press and hold it again for five seconds to quiet it.

Replace the batteries if the unit won't work as expected for the test. If replacement batteries don’t help, replace the detector entirely.

How to reset your carbon monoxide alarm

You only need to reset your unit when the alarm goes off, after running a test or after swapping the batteries. A few models automatically reset themselves in under 10 minutes of these events, while others require a manual reset. The instruction manual can note which function applies.

Follow these steps to reset your CO detector manually:

  • Press and hold the Reset button for 5 to 10 seconds.
  • Release the button and listen for a beep, a flash or both.

If you don’t hear a beep or see a flash, start the reset again or replace the batteries. If nothing happens, troubleshoot your carbon monoxide alarm with help from the manufacturer, or get rid of the faulty detector.

What do I do if a carbon monoxide alarm goes off?

Follow these steps to protect your home and family:

  • Do not ignore the alarm. You won't always be able to notice dangerous levels of carbon monoxide until it’s too late, so expect the alarm is operating correctly when it goes off.
  • Evacuate all people and pets as quickly as possible. If you're able to, open windows and doors on your way out to attempt to thin out the concentration of CO gas.
  • Call 911 or a local fire department and explain that the carbon monoxide alarm has gone off.
  • It's wrong to think it’s safe to reenter your home when the alarm is no longer beeping. Opening windows and doors may help air it out, but the source may still be generating carbon monoxide.
  • When emergency responders come, they will search your home, evaluate carbon monoxide levels, check for the source of the CO leak and figure out if it’s safe to return. Depending on the cause, you may need to request repair services to stop the problem from recurring.

Find Support from Parker Pearce Service Experts

With the appropriate precautions, there’s no need to worry about carbon monoxide inhalation in your home. Along with installing CO alarms, it’s crucial to maintain your fuel-burning appliances, namely as winter arrives.

The team at Parker Pearce Service Experts is qualified to inspect, clean, diagnose and repair malfunctions with furnaces, boilers, water heaters and other combustion appliances. We know what signs could mean a possible carbon monoxide leak— such as excess soot, rusted flue pipes and a yellow, flickering burner flame—along with the necessary repairs to prevent them.

Do you still have questions or concerns about CO exposure? Is it time to schedule annual heating services? Contact Parker Pearce Service Experts for more information.

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