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Why Carbon Monoxide Safety is Critical in the Home

Carbon monoxide – also known as the silent killer – is no joke. Protecting your home and family from this invisible threat is so important.

Here’s why:

What is Carbon Monoxide Exactly?

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a gas made of one carbon atom bonded to one oxygen atom. It’s produced when fuels like gasoline, propane, natural gas, oil, wood, or charcoal burn. Appliances like furnaces, stoves, grills, fireplaces, space heaters, generators, and vehicles all burn fuel and make CO.

The reason CO is so dangerous is that it’s impossible for our human senses to detect. That makes it super stealthy. It has no color, no smell, and no taste, so it’s undetectable without a CO detector.

How Does CO Get Into My House?

Here’s the deal – CO is already present in small, harmless amounts in every home. That’s because trace amounts are a normal byproduct of combustion from our appliances and heating systems. Most appliances produce tiny amounts of CO during normal operation. But when they’re working correctly, there’s ample fresh air for complete burning of the fuel, and the CO gets vented outside through chimneys or exhaust vents.

So a little CO in your home is totally expected and not dangerous. But trouble starts when appliances and heating systems stop working properly. Things like a cracked heat exchanger in your furnace, blocked chimney or flue, broken ventilation fan, or cracked stove burner can cause dangerous CO build-up inside your home.

When the gas accumulates in enclosed indoor spaces and ventilation is blocked, CO concentrations quickly rise to toxic levels. And once it builds up, everyone inside is at serious risk of breathing in the poisonous fumes.

What Are the Signs of CO Poisoning?

Low-level exposure over time can make you sick. Symptoms often get mistaken for a cold or the flu. Here are the most common effects of minor CO poisoning:

  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Confusion
  • Dizziness

Higher concentrations cause more severe CO poisoning with these escalating symptoms:

  • Severe headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • Muscle weakness and coordination problems
  • Impaired vision and hearing
  • Confusion and memory loss
  • Unconsciousness
  • Seizures
  • Brain damage
  • Coma
  • Death

How sick you get depends on two things:

  1. The amount of CO gas you’re exposed to
  2. How long the exposure lasts

The more gas and the longer the exposure, the worse the poisoning.

Who’s Most at Risk?

While CO can poison anyone, certain groups of people are most vulnerable:

  • Pregnant women – CO crosses the placenta and prevents oxygen from reaching the fetus
  • Infants and children – They absorb CO more quickly than adults and are more susceptible to its effects
  • Seniors – They may not realize they’re being poisoned or be able to help themselves
  • People with chronic heart disease – Their bodies already struggle with oxygen, so CO makes it worse
  • People with lung disease – Their lungs are already compromised, so CO is more dangerous
  • Pets – Animals also absorb CO faster than humans and succumb more quickly

How Can I Prevent CO Poisoning?

The best way to protect your home is with CO detectors. Here are tips for proper CO alarm installation and maintenance:

  • Install a CO alarm on each level of the home, including basements. Place them about 15 feet outside sleeping areas.
  • Choose alarms that are UL certified and have digital displays. This allows you to see if CO levels are rising over time.
  • Replace CO detectors every 5-7 years or according to manufacturer’s instructions. Mark the install date with a marker.
  • Never disable CO detectors or ignore their warnings. Your life may depend on them!
  • Test alarms monthly by pressing the Test button. Replace batteries twice per year.
  • Consider installing a combination CO/smoke alarm for added safety.

You should also have fuel-burning appliances inspected annually and practice other prevention tips:

  • Schedule professional inspection/cleaning of furnaces, gas water heaters, stoves, chimneys, and vents yearly.
  • Open the garage door before starting vehicles and back them out immediately. Never let a car run in the garage, even with the door open.
  • Clear snow and debris from appliance vents and chimneys during winter. Make sure they aren’t blocked.
  • Clean the lint trap before every load of laundry and scrub the clothes dryer vent pipe annually.
  • Check that stove burners and oven flames are blue. Yellow or orange means CO.
  • Never burn charcoal indoors or use a grill, generator, or camping stove inside a home, garage, or tent.
  • Install and maintain CO detectors on boats and RVs used for living space.

What If My Alarm Goes Off?

If your CO detector sounds an alarm, don’t ignore it! Follow these steps immediately:

  • Get everyone out of the home and into fresh air right away. Don’t try to find or fix the source of CO yourself.
  • Call 911 from outside the home to report a possible CO leak.
  • Take a head count to ensure all people and pets safely evacuated.
  • Don’t re-enter the building until emergency responders verify levels are safe.
  • Seek medical help if you’re feeling any symptoms of CO poisoning. Let doctors know you may have been exposed so they can administer oxygen or treatment.
  • Contact a qualified technician to inspect appliances before using them again. Identify and repair the source of CO.

How Common Is CO Poisoning?

Accidental CO poisoning claims over 400 lives per year in the U.S. Additionally, more than 20,000 people visit emergency rooms and another 4,000+ are hospitalized annually due to CO exposure.

For more on installing and maintaining CO or combination CO/smoke detectors, give us a call. We’re happy to help keep your home safe!


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