Carbon Monoxide Detectors: Ultimate Guide

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a potentially hazardous gas found in the home. Nicknamed the “silent killer,” CO gas is colorless, odorless, tasteless and non-irritating, yet it can cause unconsciousness, brain damage or death. Because of this, more than 400 people suffer fatal carbon monoxide exposure each year, a larger fatality rate than other types of poisoning.

As the weather gets colder, you seal your home for the winter and count on heating appliances to keep warm. This is where the risk of carbon monoxide exposure is highest. Thankfully you can protect your family from carbon monoxide in several ways. One of the most successful methods is to add CO detectors around your home. Try this guide to better understand where carbon monoxide can appear from and how to make the most of your CO sensors.

What causes carbon monoxide in a house?

Carbon monoxide is a byproduct whenever something combusts. Because of this, this gas is generated when a fuel source burns, like natural gas, propane, oil, charcoal, gasoline, woo, and more. Frequent causes of carbon monoxide in a house include:

  • Overloaded clothes dryer vent
  • Faulty water heater
  • Furnace or boiler with a cracked 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 operating in the garage

Do smoke detectors sense carbon monoxide?

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

Smoke detectors are available in two basic modes—ionization detectors and photoelectric detectors. Ionization detection is ideal with fast-growing fires that generate large flames, while photoelectric detection is more applicable 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.

Clearly, smoke detectors and CO alarms are similarly beneficial home safety devices. If you inspect the ceiling and see an alarm of some kind, you may not recognize whether it’s a smoke detector or a carbon monoxide alarm. The visual contrast is based on the brand and model you want. Here are a few factors to keep in mind:

  • Most devices are visibly labeled. If not, check for a brand and model number on the back of the detector and find it online. You should also find a manufacture date. If the device is more than a decade old, replace it right away.
  • Plug-in devices that draw power from an outlet are generally carbon monoxide alarms94. The device is supposed to be labeled saying as much.
  • Some alarms are really two-in-one, sensing both smoke and carbon monoxide with a different indicator light for each. Still, it can be difficult to tell without a label on the front, so 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, number of floors and bedroom arrangement. Follow these guidelines to provide total coverage:

  • Install carbon monoxide detectors around sleeping areas: CO gas exposure is most common at night when furnaces are running more often to keep your home comfortable. As a result, every bedroom should have a carbon monoxide detector installed about 15 feet of the door. If multiple bedroom doors are less than 30 feet apart, one detector is sufficient.
  • Add detectors on all floors:
    Dense carbon monoxide gas can become stuck on a single floor of your home, so do your best to have at least one CO detector on every level.
  • Install detectors within 10 feet of an attached garage door: A surprising number of people end up leaving their cars on in the garage, leading to dangerous carbon monoxide gas, 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 increased carbon monoxide levels within your home.
  • Install 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 up against the ceiling is best to catch this rising air. Models that come with digital readouts are best placed at eye level to make sure they're easy to read.
  • Install detectors about 15 feet from combustion appliances: Certain fuel-burning machines emit a tiny, non-toxic amount of carbon monoxide at startup. This dissipates quickly, but when a CO detector is installed right next to it, it might give off false alarms.
  • Have detectors away from extreme heat and humidity: Carbon monoxide detectors have specified tolerances for heat and humidity. To limit false alarms, try not to install them in bathrooms, in direct sunlight, next to air vents, or close to heat-generating appliances.

How do I test/troubleshoot a carbon monoxide alarm?

Depending on the specific unit, the manufacturer will sometimes encourage monthly tests and resetting to maintain proper functionality. Also, change out the batteries in battery-powered units every six months. For hardwired units, replace the backup battery annually or when the alarm starts chirping, whichever comes first. Then, replace the CO detector outright after 10 years or as outlined by the manufacturer’s instructions.

How to test your carbon monoxide alarm

It only takes a minute to test your CO detector. Check the instruction manual for directions unique to your unit, understanding that testing uses this general process:

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

Change the batteries if the unit won't work as expected during the test. If replacement batteries don’t make a difference, replace the detector entirely.

How to reset your carbon monoxide alarm

You're only required to reset your unit after the alarm goes off, after a test or after replacing the batteries. Certain models automatically reset themselves in 10 minutes of these events, while other models need a manual reset. The instruction manual will 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 notice a beep or observe a flash, start the reset again or replace the batteries. If that doesn't help either, troubleshoot your carbon monoxide alarm with support from the manufacturer, or get rid of the faulty detector.

What can I do if a carbon monoxide alarm starts?

Follow these steps to protect your home and family:

  • Do not ignore the alarm. You won't always be able to identify unsafe levels of carbon monoxide until it’s too late, so anticipate the alarm is working correctly when it starts.
  • Evacuate all people and pets as quickly as possible. If you can, open windows and doors on your way out to try and 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 might help air it out, but the root cause may still be generating carbon monoxide.
  • When emergency responders show up, they will enter your home, assess carbon monoxide levels, try to find the source of the CO leak and figure out if it’s safe to go back inside. Depending on the cause, you may need to request repair services to stop the problem from recurring.

Find Support from Service Experts Heating & Air Conditioning

With the appropriate precautions, there’s no need to worry about carbon monoxide poisoning in your home. Besides installing CO alarms, it’s worthwhile to maintain your fuel-burning appliances, namely as winter gets underway.

The team at Service Experts Heating & Air Conditioning is qualified to inspect, clean, diagnose and repair problems with furnaces, boilers, water heaters and other combustion appliances. We understand what signs suggest a likely carbon monoxide leak— like increased soot, rusted flue pipes and a yellow, flickering burner flame—along with the necessary repairs to resolve 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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