Carbon Monoxide Detectors: Ultimate Guide

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a common risk found in the home. Nicknamed the “silent killer,” CO gas is colorless, odorless, tasteless and non-irritating, but it can lead to unconsciousness, brain damage or death. As a result, more than 400 people suffer fatal carbon monoxide exposure each year, a higher fatality rate compared to any other type of poisoning.

As the weather cools off, you close up your home for the winter and trust in heating appliances to remain warm. These situations are when the danger of carbon monoxide poisoning is highest. The good news is you can protect your family from a gas leak in several ways. One of the most successful methods is to add CO detectors in your home. Check out this guide to better understand where carbon monoxide is produced and how to reap the benefits of your CO sensors.

What generates carbon monoxide in a house?

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

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

Do smoke detectors sense carbon monoxide?

No, smoke detectors do not detect carbon monoxide. In fact, they start an alarm when they sense a certain concentration of smoke caused by a fire. Installing dependable smoke detectors reduces the risk of dying in a house fire by nearly 55 percent.

Smoke detectors are offered in two main types—ionization detectors and photoelectric detectors. Ionization detection functions well with fast-growing fires that generate large flames, while photoelectric detectors are more applicable for smoldering, smoky fires. A few smoke detectors incorporate both forms of alarms in one unit to maximize the chance of responding to a fire, no matter how it burns.

Unmistakably, smoke detectors and CO alarms are both essential home safety devices. If you check the ceiling and notice an alarm of some kind, you won't always know whether it’s a smoke detector or a carbon monoxide alarm. The visual difference depends on the brand and model you prefer. Here are some factors to keep in mind:

  • Some devices are properly labeled. If not, check for a brand and model number on the back of the detector and find it online. You will also find a manufacture date. If the device is older than 10 years, replace it as soon as possible.
  • Plug-in devices that extract power from an outlet are generally carbon monoxide sensors94. The device is supposed to be labeled as such.
  • Some alarms are really two-in-one, sensing both smoke and carbon monoxide with a different indicator light for each. Nevertheless, it can be tough to tell if there's no label on the front, so double checking the manufacturing details on the back is smart.

How many carbon monoxide detectors should I install in my home?

The number of CO alarms you require is determined by your home’s size, the number of stories and bedroom arrangement. Follow these guidelines to ensure total coverage:

  • Place carbon monoxide detectors near bedrooms: CO gas poisoning is most common at night when furnaces must run frequently to keep your home heated. Therefore, every bedroom should have a carbon monoxide detector installed within 15 feet of the door. If two bedroom doors are less than 30 feet apart, just one detector is sufficient.
  • Add detectors on every floor:
    Dangerous carbon monoxide gas can become stuck on a single floor of your home, so make sure you have at least one CO detector on each floor.
  • Put in detectors within 10 feet of the internal garage door: A lot of people unsafely leave their cars on in the garage, producing dangerous carbon monoxide buildup, even while the large garage door is wide open. A CO alarm just inside the door—and in the room up above the garage—alerts you of elevated carbon monoxide levels within your home.
  • Put in detectors at the proper height: Carbon monoxide weighs about the same as air, but it’s frequently carried along with the hot air released by combustion appliances. Putting in detectors up against the ceiling is best to catch this rising air. Models that include digital readouts are best placed at eye level to keep them easy to read.
  • Install detectors about 15 feet from combustion appliances: A few fuel-burning machines produce a tiny, non-toxic amount of carbon monoxide when they start. This dissipates quickly, but when a CO detector is positioned too close, it could lead to false alarms.
  • Install detectors away from high heat and humidity: Carbon monoxide detectors have specific tolerances for heat and humidity. To reduce false alarms, try not to install them in bathrooms, in strong sunlight, near air vents, or close to heat-generating appliances.

How do I test/troubleshoot a carbon monoxide sensor?

Depending on the model, the manufacturer will sometimes recommend monthly testing and resetting to ensure proper functionality. Also, change out the batteries in battery-powered units twice a year. For hardwired units, replace the backup battery every year or when the alarm starts chirping, whichever comes first. Then, replace the CO detector outright every 10 years or according to the manufacturer’s recommendations.

How to test your carbon monoxide alarm

It only takes a minute to test your CO sensor. Check the instruction manual for directions individual to your unit, knowing that testing follows this general process:

  • Press and hold the Test button. It might need 5 to 20 seconds for the alarm to go off.
  • Loud beeping signifies the detector is operating correctly.
  • Release the Test button and wait for two quick beeps, a flash or both. If the device continues beeping when you let go of the button, press and hold it again for five seconds to stop it.

Swap out the batteries if the unit fails to perform as expected for the test. If replacement batteries don’t change anything, replace the detector immediately.

How to reset your carbon monoxide alarm

You're only required to reset your unit when the alarm goes off, after a test or after swapping the batteries. Certain models automatically reset themselves in 10 minutes of these events, while other alarms require a manual reset. The instruction manual can note which function is applicable.

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 get a beep or see a flash, try the reset again or replace the batteries. If that doesn't help either, troubleshoot your carbon monoxide alarm with help from the manufacturer, or get rid of the faulty detector.

What can I do if a carbon monoxide alarm starts?

Follow these steps to take care of your home and family:

  • Do not dismiss the alarm. You may not be able to recognize dangerous levels of carbon monoxide until it’s too late, so expect the alarm is operating correctly when it starts.
  • Evacuate all people and pets immediately. If you can, open windows and doors on your way out to try and dilute the concentration of CO gas.
  • Call 911 or a local fire department and explain that the carbon monoxide alarm has triggered.
  • 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 root cause might still be producing carbon monoxide.
  • When emergency responders arrive, they will enter your home, assess carbon monoxide levels, check for the source of the CO leak and establish if it’s safe to come back inside. Depending on the cause, you might need to schedule repair services to keep the problem from recurring.

Get Support from Service Experts Heating & Air Conditioning

With the proper precautions, there’s no need to fear carbon monoxide inhalation in your home. In addition to installing CO alarms, it’s important to maintain your fuel-burning appliances, especially as winter gets underway.

The team at Service Experts Heating & Air Conditioning is happy to inspect, clean, diagnose and repair issues with furnaces, boilers, water heaters and other combustion appliances. We understand what signs suggest a potential carbon monoxide leak— such as excessive soot, rusted flue pipes and a yellow, flickering burner flame—along with the necessary repairs to avoid them.

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

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